Ultra Pro and the Patent Lifecycle

A bit of online discussion about my previous patent post got me thinking about the patent lifecycle and the way that patent numbers are printed, or not, on products.

Unlike copyrights,* patents have only a 20-year lifespan. After they expire the patent holder no longer has a monopoly on the design. Printing the patent number on a product is only legal if the patent has not yet expired.**

*which remain active as long as Disney wants them to.

**Topps has gotten trouble for this in the past.

While patents don’t show up on cards very often they do show up on other things we handle all the time. For example pages. When I was a kid in the early 1990s Ultra Pro pages were the fancy new thing. I couldn’t always afford them but I got them when I could. They just felt better at the time and upon revisiting my childhood collection 25 years later the Ultra Pros were the only ones that were still usable.

Yeah I’m still using Ultra Pro pages from before they added the holograph. More importantly for this post, they state “patent pending” which gives us a decent idea as to when the 20 year clock started. There is no patent number listed on the pages I’ve purchased since I rejoined the hobby in 2017. Nor should there be since 2017 is more than 20 years after the early 1990s.

I asked on Twitter if anyone had any Ultra Pro pages from the 2000s and lo and behold, the Twiter hive mind/collection responded.

This page is from around 2010 and lists two patents, 5266150 and 5312507. Presumably UltraPro included these numbers on all their tooling for the ~20 years that those patents were valid and then had to retool once they expired.

Anyway, now that we have numbers let’s take a look. The first thing I found was that the two patents are basically the same. The earlier one, 5266150, is a bit larger and the portion relevant to making the pages was split off into its own patent, 5312507 so we’re only really looking at one patent here. And looking at the timeline we can see when Ultra Pro would’ve been printing a patent number on its sheets

1991-03-08 Priority to US07/666,260
1993-09-10 Application filed by Rembrandt Photo Services
1994-05-17 Application granted
1994-05-17 Publication of US5312507A
2011-05-17 Anticipated expiration

So if you got UltraPros between 1994 and 2011 odds are the patent numbers are on there. This means I just missed getting some of these since I dropped out of the hobby on August 12, 1994 and didn’t get around to paging any of the cards I had purchased that year.

Looking at the rest of the patent, the pictures very clearly show the nine-pocket pages we’re all familiar with but the patent itself is actually about how to weld polypropylene together. A long pull quote from the patent itself explains the problem and in doing so, also describes the nature of card pages in the late 1980s.

Unlike vinyl, attempts to weld polypropylene sheets (as well as other polyolefin sheets) by radio-frequency welding techniques have been in general unsatisfactory. Instead, thermocontact welding is generally employed, although attempts to produce a solid weld seam by thermocontact welding have previously caused the welded sheets to exhibit a tendency to curl or otherwise deform, thought to be a result of polypropylene’s sensitivity to heat. In order to prevent curling or deformation, prior art thermocontact methods for welding polypropylene sheets have utilized discontinuous or intermittent die surfaces for producing discontinuous or intermittent welded seams—i.e. the welded seam is comprised of a sequence or series of welded dots or short dashes with unwelded material between successive dots or dashes.

So many of my childhood pages were vinyl and just did not age well. Thankfully none destroyed my cards. I also had a decent number of pages with seams that were welded in dashes. These did better but I never liked them. There’s a reason why UltraPro became the standard.

The rest of the patent explains how the pages are made. From what I can tell the key distinction is that only one side of the metal die that does the welding is heated. The other is kept cool and I guess this makes the overall operation run cooler so only the seams get heated and the rest of the polypropylene has no chance to thermally deform.

What I found more interesting was that I never gave much thought to how the pages were actually put together with one big sheet of plastic in the back and three narrow strips on the front for each row of pages. I had to read about how the pages were assembled from 4 rolls of plastic* to realize that many of Ultra Pro’s products** are optimized around this arrangement.

*one for the back, 3 for the front.

**Such as its 15-pocket tobacco card pages.

Anyway, I found it an interesting read and decided to see what else UltraPro owned. Most of it wasn’t particularly interesting but one patent did jump out at me.

Yup. We’ve got a one-touch patent. This patent references a patent from a decade earlier for the single-screw cardholder and its main novelty is the replacement of the screw with a pair of magnets. No need to go too in depth on this one since it’s all about the functionality of the design and we’re all familiar with that. But it’s still a fun one to see and I like the idea that it took us from 1994 to 2003 to realize that we could replace a screw with a magnet.

Pinnacle Patent Dive

One of my favorite oddballs from my childhood was Action Packed. The 3D embossed effect was pretty cool but even as a kid I was impressed at the way they were made. As I’ve been looking for card-related patents I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for Action Packed.

This has been somewhat frustrating because Action Packed actually mentions patent number 315364 on the cards themselves but every time I searched that number I couldn’t find anything. A couple weeks ago though I got a tip from Paul Lesko that the Action Packed patent was in fact a design patent and should be listed as D315364.

Compared to the more-common utility/mechanical patents which describe how a product works, design patents are strictly about how the product looks. In the case of Action Packed, its design patent covers the different profile levels.

This is cool to see but also ultimately disappointing since design patents are literally just about how the product looks. I’m not a patent attorney but even though Action Packed put this patent number on all its cards—not just the ones that have this border design—I can’t help but think that this patent only applies to the specific profile of the original design.

Original design is on the left. It’s clearly the same design as the one in the design patent. I’m not sure if there was ever a proper baseball release in that design since all the baseball cards I’ve see are the design on the right.

Flipping the cards overs shows how they were made. There’s a seam that goes the length of the card (above the card number on Cunningham and above the stats on Jenkins) which shows how they’re printed on only one side of the paper and subsequently glued together. This is pretty clever since it hides the back of the embossing is on the card fronts.

It’s worth noting the prototype baseball cards which date to when the design patent was filed in 1988 use the design in the patent and are assembled differently. Instead of folding each side over and putting a seam on the back, this is just folded in half.

Anyway I’m still hoping to find more details about the production of these but I did notice that the patent is now assigned to Pinnacle Brands. So I decided to click on that name and see what else they owned.

There wasn’t as much interesting stuff in there as I was hoping for but this patent jumped out a me. Fellow early-90s collectors like myself will recognize it immediately, everyone else will be pretty confused.

The patent title itself gives it away. This is an anti-counterfeiting device. Where Upper Deck used holograms on its cards, Pinnacle decided to leverage its Sportflics brand and use lenticular printing.

That little slug under the player portrait on the back of every Pinnacle card? It’s basically what a Sportflics or Kelloggs card looks like before the plastic lens layer is added on top of the printing. It definitely confused me as a kid so it’s cool to see how it’s actually supposed to work.

Mid-90s Pop-ups

I read the post about Stouffer’s pop-up cards with a lot of interest because it’s always fun to find out about new sets and I love gimmicky things like pop-ups. However the assertion that those were the “best engineered baseball cards that have been issued to date” made me pause.

I have no argument with the best-engineered part since the pop-up mechanism is super nifty. It was the to-date that got me thinking. Why? Because there were a lot of similar pop-up cards in the mid-1990s.

Quickly referencing my collection and googling for images that show some of the different mechanisms in action turned up at least four other sets. There’s the 1994 Oscar Mayer Superstar Discs,* and each year from 1993 to 1995 Kraft issued a set of pop-up cards as well.

*A full write-up of these is over at Angels in Order

Unlike the 5-card Stouffers checklist, all four sets here involve 30-card checklists. Oscar Mayer is cool in that it includes one player per team. Kraft on the other hand is a more generic top-30 players approach. I much prefer the one-per-team  checklists. Yes some big names end up missing but there’s so much more to a season than just the names. Plus as a team collector it’s always a downer when a cool-looking set doesn’t offer a logical entry point for my collection.

Anyway, the most-interesting thing for me to find out is that these sets all appear to use slightly different mechanisms for either the pop-up effect or the card manufacturing. Some are folded and glued from one sheet of cardboard. Others look like multiple sheets. The Discs are obviously more complicated than that. The 1995 Kraft set pops up from the end of the card rather than the middle.

Something was obviously going on so I wandered over to the patent library and did a quick search. There are a lot of patents for pop-up cards in the late 80s and early 90s. So many that I can’t figure out which ones correspond to what cards.

A quick sample. US patents 5259133, 5450680, and 5746689 all look superficially the same as the Stouffers, Oscar Mayer, and 1993 Kraft cards (I’ve been unable to find one that looks like the 1995 Kraft cards). They’re mainly just assembled differently. I wish the cards or packaging had a patent number listed.

What’s amazing to me is that many of the patents are explicitly for baseball cards. In two of the images I’ve chosen here the illustration clearly features a baseball player.

Patents are usually written somewhat broadly so that they can apply to multiple applications beyond the original intent of the application. But in the artwork here the inventor’s inspiration comes through. The mid-90s explosion of card-related technologies* resulted in multiple patents about baseball cards and in this case multiple patents to achieve the same effect.

*Other patents are in my previous patent dive post but relics, foil stamping, holograms, die cuts, chrome, dufex, etc. all exploded that decade.

Covering the Bases: 1989 Topps #156 Dave Gallagher

In this edition of “Covering the Bases”  we are discussing the 1989 Topps All-Star Rookie cup card dedicated to outfielder Dave Gallagher.

The chief reason I chose to cover Gallagher here is that he recently discussed his Topps All-Star Rookie Cup on Twitter – spoiler alert, I was a little bummed with his feedback.

1989 Topps #156

Lets open by discussing the card which is Gallagher’s Topps debut.  A couple of observations:

1) This appears to be a Spring Training shot – note the chain link fence and treeline beyond Gallagher’s left shoulder.

2) In 1988 Chicago sported their uniform numbers on the front of the left pant leg, It is mostly obscured by the “White Sox” script on the card but you can still make out what is the top of Gallagher’s #17 here.

3) Gallagher is apparently holding some sort of BP bat. At first I thought Gallagher was using a bat sleeve – but 1988 seems sort of early historically. Looking closer I think what we are dealing with here is Bat Tape. I am guessing that the idea is to extend the life of a BP bat, perhaps the tape also acts as a visual cue to help a batter to target the sweet spot.

1988 Topps All-Star Rookie Cup

Of course the reason team Phungo took an interest in this card is that it falls under the umbrella of our obsession with Topps All-Star Rookie Cards. This past September SABR Member Brian Frank had posted via twitter a snapshot of the card on Gallagher’s 59th birthday. Gallagher acknowledged the posting noting the day is also his Wedding Anniversary.  I later jumped on the thread posing the following question:

I wanted to hear that Dave Gallagher was a big fan of baseball cards, has a collection that he considers very special and that getting a Trophy from Topps Chewing Gum Co was the highlight of his playing career.

Well, that wasn’t the answer I received. Gallagher’s reply was sobering and quite prudent.

THROWN OUT!

As a Topps All-Star Rookie Cup obsessive I was momentarily crushed. But it makes sense, I am sure there have been several dozen trophies that a player like Dave Gallagher has accumulated in a 20 year professional career. Keeping them all likely borders on hoarding. And his point of maintaining a separation of career and home also seems wise.

More Gallagher Cards

While researching Dave Gallagher cards I came across his 1989 Topps Big card

1989 Topps Big #310 Dave Gallagher

Which is a fine card but what really interested me was something on the back

1989 Topps Big #310 Dave Gallagher (b-side)

Check out the middle panel on the cartoon. It is not a Baseball Card Patent but Dave Gallagher does have a Baseball related Patent. His invention is known as the “Stride Tutor” or according to the Patent Office “Apparatus for improving the hitting technique of baseball players.” It is essentially a set of foot cuffs (with a longer plastic chain) that are designed to train a batter to make a consistent stride in their swing. The device was written up in a 1989 Sports Illustrated article.

Gallagher’s patent application is pretty interesting citing SIX Hall of Famers: Johnny Bench, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, Nolan Ryan, and Joe Torre plus Pete Rose and Hitting Guru Charlie Lau.

There you have it, Covering all the Bases on a single (well two) Topps card leads you to the US Patent Office and Joe DiMaggio.

Sources and Links

Trading Card DB

baseball-ref

Twitter @DaveGallagher22

HERD Chronicles (SABR Brian Frank)

Phungo 1989 Topps All-Star Rookie Cup index

Google Patents

COMC Check Out My Cards

Sports Illustrated (1989 May 22 pg 81)

High Heat Stats

Chrome, Finest, Reversed Printing, and Opaque Whites

Last December fellow print geek @robbyt86 tweeted an astute observation about someone else’s printing plate rainbow when he noticed that the rainbow consisted of both regular and Chrome cards and that the Chrome cards were printed in reverse. The top two printing plate cards in the image are regular paper printed right-reading (as can be seen in the jersey logo and number). The bottom two are Chrome printed wrong-reading.

This got me thinking and I hypothesized that Chrome was printed in reverse on clear plastic and then fused to the foilboard. This would explain the difference in the printing plates as well as the mix of foil and non-foil finishes. Opaque white ink isn’t usually the best thing to print on top of but this technique would lay it down last, on top of the other inks, which is a perfect use for it.

The more I thought about this the more I realized that this was also probably how Finest was made in the mid-1990s* and that I wanted to do some digging to confirm whether or not this was indeed the case.

*and that there was a decent chance that the protective coating on Finest is still on the clear layer of these Chrome/Finest cards today only it’s getting peeled off after printing but before packing.

So I decided to soak one of my excess Chrome cards to see what I could find out. I selected a 2015 Topps Chrome Hunter Strickland for this since I had gotten tired of him after the 2018 broken hand debacle. 2015 is a good design for this since the colored border meant there was, presumably, some opaque white right there on the edge.

Soaking went well. Card came apart as expected except for the surprise Tide Pod marks inside the card stock. After cleaning everything up I was left with just the front of the card and a literal foil backing.

The next step for me was to start sanding each side to confirm what side the ink was on and see if I could find a way to remove just the foil. This didn’t work super well but I did confirm that the ink is indeed printed on the inside layer of the plastic. You can make out the scuff marks on Strickland’s face and how they stay on the surface of the card rather than removing any ink. Compare this to where I sanded on the back by the Giants logo. The foil and image both start to disappear—especially along the edge.

So I was stuck both because Chrome is impossible to scan and because I hadn’t really produced anything interesting. And then Artiezillante commented on my previous post where I dove into the patent archive. I’ll just reproduce it in full here as well.

So in addition to cards I have a fairly extensive collection of wrappers from the 1980s-today because you never know when you’re going to need to go to the wrapper to answer a question. On the 1997 Finest Series 1 and 2 wrappers they have the following language:

Topps Finest is a registered trademark of The Topps Company, Inc.
SGW US Patent #4933218, #5082703, #5106126, Chromium (R), Holochrome (R), #5223357, Skin Protector TM, ClearChrome (R), Pat. Pending

I don’t have a 1996 Finest wrapper, but I do have one from 1995 and none of that language is there. The 1998 Finest wrapper is nearly impossible to read (the wrapper is clear so the print on the back gets jumbled with the design on the front) but it also mentions US & Foreign patents for Chromium, Holochrome, Skin Protector, and ClearChrome, though there are no patent numbers. The earliest Topps Chrome wrapper I have is from 2002 and it has the same language as the 1998 Finest wrapper.

This was fantastic and turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. Patents 5082703, 5106126, and 5223357 in particular describe exactly what’s going on with Finest and Chrome.

Patent 5082703 describes the clear layer,* how it’s printed on the back side, and how the thickness of the ink printed can be changed so as to create textural effects. The pictures in the patent show a generic image in Figure 1 with Figures 2, 3, 4, and 7 representing different cross sections with the clear layer always being labelled 12 and the different ink layers on the back being shown in profile.

*Patent 4933218 that Topps also mentions is an earlier version of 5082703.

Patent 5106126 meanwhile covers the opaque masking of portions of the printed image so that multiple finishes are available after a metallic layer is added to the piece. More specifically it builds on printing on a clear substrate (what the previous patent covers) by depositing an opaque layer behind select portions of the image before layering reflective/metallic material on the back of the entire piece. This results in some portions of the printed piece having a metallic sheen and other pieces being dull and paper-like.

One key point here is that metallic layer is laminated or sprayed on to the substrate. This is not how cards are produced so the key takeaway here is the custom opaque ink sections.*

*Compare this to the custom foil stamping detailed in Upper Deck’s hologram card patent I mention in my previous post

The last patent, number 5223357, covers the assembly of the cards. The patent specifies holographic film but the key takeaway for me is that it discusses adhering together two distinct sheets—the clear layer (labelled 12) and the metallic/holographic layer (labelled 14)—rather than the single sheet that the other two patents discuss.

The cross-sectional drawings in this patent also distinctly show how the ink is located between the two layers and confirms that my hypothesis about how these cards are assembled is correct.

It also explains why the Chrome printing plates are wrong-reading since, once they’re printed on the the clear substrate, they become right-reading when viewed through the plastic.

When you look at a Chrome card you’re looking at the back of the printing through the clear plastic sheet that it’s been printed on. The non-shiny sections have opaque white ink printed on top of the colored inks (remember you’re looking at the back of the printing). The shiny sections are from a foil sheet that has been glued to the plastic sheet. The rest of the card is regular paper card stock* on which the card backs are printed just like traditional paper cards.

*The plastic/paper dual composition is why Chrome cards tend to curl so much. Paper responds to humidity much more than plastic and so depending on conditions in the Topps plant vs conditions in your home it will expand or contract a little and result in curling.

Patent dive

When I wrote my post about Collect A Books, I stuck my nose into Google Patents because it was the easiest way for me to produce a citation for Bouton actually being the inventor. Once inside though I couldn’t help myself and started looking around at other patents related to baseball cards.

I should’ve realized the danger here. As someone with a mechanical engineering background, patents and patent drawings are always something I enjoy looking through. So without further ado, a handful of patents which correspond to cards that we’re somewhat familiar with. Since this blog doesn’t keep a patent attorney on retainer I’m merely going to note the patents and what cards the correspond to.

US Patent 5517336 is held by Upper Deck and involves mixing printing with holograms. While the patent is dated 1995, that the initial filings date to 1993 feels about right to me. 1993 is when the Denny’s Holograms switched from being all-hologram to a combination of hologram and print. It’s also when Upper Deck released the Then and Now insert set which did the exact same thing.

Patent number 5328207 dates to 1991 and describes sticker autographs. I don’t remember these existing at all in the early 1990s so it’s interesting for me to see this showing up so long ago. I do like that the patent application is clearly a baseball player rather being a more-generic person.

Patent number 7413128B2 is another one owned by Upper Deck and concerns relic cards. There are a bunch of relic card patents out there, each with different methods of enclosing the pieces. I like this one since it’s held by Upper Deck and because it’s got the best images about how the relic cards are assembled and how they can accommodate different kinds of enclosures.

That this patent dates to 2004—a decade after relics had been out in the wild—shows how companies have been trying to improve and update the relic card to be more than just a small swatch of material. This patent isn’t just relics, it’s any insert from cut autographs to manufactured non-card materials and it doesn’t even have to be flat.

The last patent from this dive is number 20080202947, held by Topps. Yup, this is the Allen and Ginter Rip Card patent. The patent text references prior art from Pinnacle but there doesn’t appear to be a patent for that in the citations.

It’s interesting to me how so much of the patent application concerns the gambling aspect of the rip card and emphasizes how the outer card is intended to be destroyed.

I plan to continue digging through the archive and seeing what else I find. I’ve found some cool-looking stuff that doesn’t look like it was ever turned into a product. There are also a few products which I’d love to find patents for (Topps Chrome I’m looking for you) since I’ve been reverse engineering their production for a while as part of future posts. And if anyone else wants to start digging (even just starting with the related patents in the citations here), the more the merrier.

Collect-A-Books

As Mark noted in his post about Jim Bouton, his cards are collectable because of his position in the history of the game. For me and my generation of card collectors,* this influence extends beyond just Ball Four as Bouton is a big part of a few other products we remember fondly.

*Junk wax aficionados who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s.

Big League Chew of course is the big name here but I also grew up with Collect-A-Books and owned them before I’d even had a chance to read Ball Four. It was cool to read the book, learn about his life as an inventor in Ball Six, and realize that all those Collect-A-Books I owned were in fact a product that Bouton actually invented and owns the patent for.*

*Bouton has one other patent for something which he calls “Collect-A-Bats” in his book but which were actually produced by Good Humor under a different name and which you can come across on occasion on Ebay if you feel like buying something that a random seller may have sucked on thirty years ago.

While I liked them as a kid for being different, I found myself really appreciating them as objects once I revisited my collection as an adult. As a print and design geek these are super nifty.

Bouton’s patent is for a method of creating booklets through just folding and gluing. No staples or traditional binding, instead the sheets are printed, folded, glued and then you have a strip of booklets that just needs to be trimmed on the tops and bottoms. The covers are double-thick compared to the inside pages and the end result is just about perfect.

It feels like a baseball-card sized book without any of the worry about staples keeping the pages together. Nor do they feel any worse for wear after three decades in storage. Slides out of the pocket easily and even the glue is still holding.

Many of my magazines have rusty staples and pages that are pulling out even though I haven’t abused them. No such worries here. It handles like a card and flips through like a book and I don’t have to treat it with kid gloves.

Flipping through the booklets is a lot of fun. Not the best design but an interesting thought experiment about what you could include on a baseball card if you had seven times as much back space. So we’ve got a page of stats, a page of biography, a page of career highlights, an inspiration quote and facsimile signature, a cartoon caricature, a page of vital information, and four additional photos.

In some ways this is almost too much space and after putting literally everything that’s usually on the backs of cards things still feel nowhere nearly as information dense as they should be.

I had three sets of twelve booklets from 1990* and very much enjoyed them. Looking at the checklist now is a wonderful who’s who of the big names of the day—both stars and hot rookies—as well as a nice sample of nine all-time greats. The most-interesting thing about these 36 cards though is how few of the players were notable for multiple teams since this suggests something that would’ve been very fun for the insides.

*I never saw the 1991 ones.

All that space and all those photos offer a great way to show guys playing for different teams and at various stages in their careers. Unfortunately there’s precious little of this. There’s one photo of Nolan Ryan as a Met and Warren Spahn’s card depicts him in a Boston uniform as well as a Mets uniform. No Rickey Henderson as a Yankee. No Hank Aaron with Milwaukee. Bob Feller and Ted Williams are old in all their photos.

But that’s all minor stuff. The real issue for me is that I want to display these better moving forward. 9-pocket pages are obviously insufficient. Instead I’m going to switch to 4-pockets and pick which inside spread I want to show on the other side. These deserve better than to be encased all closed up with only 25% of their content visible.