WASHINGTON -- "I am an artisan," Mariposa resident Cate Cannon says. "I make sex toys."
Then she laughs.
Cannon and her business partner now hold a new patent issued for the ornamental design of what is delicately dubbed an "erogenous stimulator." Soon, Cannon hopes to add a second utility patent, covering how the device actually works.
Such approvals from the Patent and Trademark Office extend invaluable intellectual property protection to Cannon and her slyly named Cox Industries. The patents, both pending and approved, also add the 48-year-old former stage designer to the San Joaquin Valley's growing roster of acknowledged inventors.
"I am very happy," Cannon said. "If you get a patent, that's pretty great; it's a real accomplishment."
The Oklahoma native has been fashioning erogenous stimulators for 12 years. The design patent granted in August, though, is her first. She had a lot to learn; patents, she discovered, are "a very complicated process." Valley scientists, farmers and tinkerers know the truth of this, as they have persisted in their own patent quests.
Merced resident Alejandro R. Castillo, for instance, recently won a patent for an anti-acid bovine feed additive. Fresno resident David Meester in September secured a patent for a small-scale tomato harvester. The same month, Modesto residents John A. and John J. Paoluccio obtained a patent for a storm water catch basin.
In just the last two weeks, Turlock resident Don Neufeld won a patent for an ornamental tray design and Visalia resident Stanley Hawkins got one for a low-flow spray head.
Mariposa residents alone have secured 44 patents since 1986, federal records show. For a Sierra Nevada community of about 1,800 residents, that's pretty good.
Nationwide, the patent office granted 185,224 patents last year. This was twice as many as were granted in 1990 and triple the number granted in 1980.
"This is a golden time for creative, innovative people," Cannon said.
Consequently, federal officials must play catch-up. Inventors can wait a long time for a patent decision -- an average of four years, in the area of computer networks -- even as the rules of the game have become outdated.
In November, for the first time in nearly 30 years, the Supreme Court will consider a case raising the question of what kinds of inventions are eligible for patent protection. It's a crucially important question for Silicon Valley, biotechnology firms, University of California researchers and others, who have filed friend-of-the-court briefs.
"The patent laws promote progress by offering inventors exclusive rights for a limited period as an incentive for their inventiveness and research efforts," the Supreme Court noted in a 1980 decision. "The productive effort thereby fostered will have a positive effect on society."
Or, as Thomas Jefferson once put it: "Ingenuity should receive a liberal encouragement."
None of which Cannon knew much about when she first came upon her latest concept, a notion that more or less erupted in her mind.
"It may have been the best idea I'll ever have in my life," Cannon said.
The details are hard to explain, and Cannon is somewhat discrete about them. Drawings submitted to the Patent and Trademark Office, available through the patentstorm.com Web site, suggest a combination of spoon and question mark. Imagining how it works requires a lubricious mind.
Like Cannon's other work, her latest is to be made of acrylic, which she says she adores for its being slick, lightweight and colorful. Currently, Cannon buys her acrylic stock from Iowa and then hand-finishes individual devices on her lathe.
"She has always excelled at making beautiful things," said Kathryn Keller, an avid photographer and friend from many years back. "She built exquisite set models ... and she was a brilliant designer."
Cannon's individual items generally sell for between $50 and $200, though some might fetch as much as $3,000. It's a very modest living, this making of erogenous stimulators, so she does miscellaneous work on the side.
Cannon sent her initial design to her Florida-based co-designer, Melissa Mia Kain, with whom she entered into a licensing arrangement about six years ago. Kain refined it and then sent it to their patent attorney, who tinkered further before submitting the application last year. Cannon estimated it costs upward of $10,000 to file a thoroughly prepared patent application.
Cannon is now scouting out new production possibilities. She's keeping her mind open, as well, to fresh ideas. Which brings one to the perennial question confronting inventors: Where do these ideas come from, anyway?
"I think sexy thoughts," Cannon said. "It's not like designing widgets, or candlesticks."