To Patent or Not to Patent

The Straight-Edged Tone Hole in History

by Jacqueline Britton Lopatin


Also first published June, 2007 in Pan, the journal of the British Flute Society, reprinted with the gracious permission of Pan Magazine. For more information on the BFS, check out their website at http://www.bfs.org.uk.

One question frequently asked of Lenny regards patenting his  SquareONE concept. When asked, he generally shrugs and says, “It’s just not worth it.” He points out the high cost of both proving a patent and of defending it. His rationale at first was that he didn’t want to spend all of his time and money in court defending it. Later, he discovered that he wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, anyway.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, relatively soon after Theobald Boehm first developed his fully keyed flute mechanism, there came a spate of innovators who attempted to give a straight edge to each air column created by the opening and closing of the tone holes. Were any of them successful? We don’t precisely know, because all of these attempts languish unplayable in museums or special collections. There is one in the Bate Collection in Oxford, England, which was probably made by Rudall Carte ca 1876. A piccolo, allegedly designed by Louis Joseph Rene Steckel and built by jeweler and watchmaker Paul LaPorte of Ottawa, Canada, is housed in the private collection of Robert Strouf in California. Steckel is the designer of the “Harmonic Flute” housed in the Dayton C. Miller Collection in the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC.

The most ambitious of these attempts was by Carlo Tomasso Giorgi of Florence, Italy, who patented a design for a flute with large rectangular holes in 1888. In partnership with a Florentine dentist named Schaffner, Giorgi took flute, oboe and clarinet tubes of theoretical length and measured them off according to the laws of physics. The fingering and playing positions of all three instruments were to be identical, so that with the right training, a musician would be easily able to switch between any of these three instruments.

What should keep Lenny’s SquareONE from becoming simply a musical footnote in history, is that he didn’t try to change too much on the flute too fast. The important aspect was that any flute player could pick up one of his flutes and immediately begin to play it. The SquareONE flutes are made to order, with all the gizmos, trill keys and other variations that a customer may desire. His primary desire is to give the customer everything they want and are used to in a flute—along with the SquareONE sound.