Key Duplication

Harold Fink, Locksmith, CRL CPS
Tue, Mar 2, 2010

Key Duplication

Authorized Key Duplication

Key duplication is something that all of us have had to do at one time or another, and in most cases, it is something that people want to do easily and without any complications. Many people enjoy the convenience of being able to duplicate keys that are readily available at home centers, hardware stores, wal-marts, dry cleaners, and neighborhood locksmith shops. The reason the keys are readily available is because the material used to cut the key with, the key blank, is readily available to the establishment cutting the keys. The ease with which anyone that were to have possession of your keys could easily duplicate them with your authority is a convenience that many folks like to have. Authorized key duplication is key duplication that is allowed by the owner of the keys. Anyone that has possession of your keys, if even for a few minutes, could duplicate most of them whether you want them to or not. Authorized means that you gave them permission to duplicate your keys, and the convenience with which you were able to get those keys duplicated by someone other than yourself is something that people often want, depending on the property being secured and the person in possession of your keys. Simply put, with possession of the right key blanks, and possession of your keys, you have authorized key duplication.

Unauthorized Key Duplication

Unauthorized key duplication is the situation described above except that you never gave the person in possession of your keys permission to duplicate your keys! The sad reality is there is little to stop the persons you don’t want to duplicate your keys if they have access to the right key blanks and were to ever have possession of your keys. If an employee is trusted with a key and that employee is able to easily have the key duplicated, then you have no control over who has possession of each key duplicated by that one employee. What stops them from handing a duplicated key to someone you had no intention of having that key?

Do you want keys that say DO NOT DUPLICATE or do you want keys that CAN NOT BE DUPLICATED ?

If the security of your property relies on mechanical locks, or any locking systems where a key can be used to bypass the system, unauthorized key duplication should be of great concern to you. The ease with which most keys that are stamped DO NOT DUPLICATE can be copied makes locks and keys run on the honor system. Many people operating key machines regularly copy keys with tape over the stamp. DO NOT DUPLICATE has little meaning to persons cutting keys and there is nothing to stop that person from cutting those keys if they have the key blanks with which to cut them. While most locksmith shops recognize the intent of stamps on keys clearly indicating not to duplicate the keys, there is nothing to stop someone else from duplicating that key, whether it is stamped or not, if they have the equipment and the key blanks.

Unauthorized key duplication is a serious liability. The yearly cost of thefts to businesses is tremendous. Think of all the times you hand your keys to someone - parking valet, car repairmen, tradesmen at work or at home, even family members, or friends of family members. If for only a few minutes, or several hours, you were not in possession of your keys, you would be at risk of having any one of them duplicated. I have been handed keys with tape over the DO NOT DUPLICATE stamp many times. I always ask them what is under the tape and let them try to explain what they are doing. If they refuse to remove the tape, I won’t copy that key even if I know it is a common key. It is a matter of ethics and what my customers expect of me that I refuse to do it, even if I know it does not stop others. Many hospitals, colleges and universities have painfully learned that poor key control puts human life and safety at risk. Key control requires that you work with a dealer with rights to their own keyway, on a system with a strong patent, effectively preventing anyone but that dealer from having the materials with which to duplicate the keys. Institutions may be able to obtain their own keyways as well.The best means for preventing unauthorized key duplication are patent laws which prevent ownership of the key blanks used to cut the keys. Interestingly, not all products claiming patent protection actually provide protection from unauthorized key duplication.

What are Patents?

Patents are temporary rights, granted by the government, that enable the patent holder to stop someone from making, using or selling an invention for the term of the patent. Design patents, awarded for novel, non-obvious ornamentation or aesthetic design, last 14 years. Utility patents, granted for novel, non-obvious functionality or processes, last 17 years. The intent of patent law is to encourage creativity. New products and processes are more likely to be developed if inventors have a temporary monopoly to reap the reward of their labors.
Patents won’t stop anyone with the proper key cutting equipment and the proper key blanks from making a key without authorization. Patents can, however, make it extremely difficult to gain possession of the key blanks with which to cut the keys. If the design is sufficient enough to prevent modification of existing key blanks which are not covered by patent laws, it is much preffered over designs where key blanks could be modified and duplicated. If someone were in possession of key blanks protected by patent laws there may be civil and criminal remedies. If someone makes a key they shouldn’t have and is caught, there may be civil and criminal remedies as well.

What is of primary concern to most high security lock makers is keeping their key blanks out of the aftermarket key blank catalogs. Strong utility patents can ensure that the manufacturer is the sole source of the key blanks. With strong utility patents, limited distribution, dealer contacts and sound key records policies, a key control package can be created that provides real value to your business.

Do patents prevent unauthorized key duplication?

Recent litigation has shown that it is not enough to say a lock is patented. What kind of patent is it? When does it expire? Most importantly, can a patent really prevent unauthorized key duplication?
Consider three important facts:
1. All patents expire, and they cannot be extended. When Medeco’s patent expired in 1987, aftermarket key blanks quickly appeared and key control was compromised. Any end users who bought this system shortly before the expiration of the patents found their key system significantly compromised shortly after making a sizable investment.
2. Some design patents have been judged unfit for key control. Keyway design involves creating variations in cross sectional keyway shapes. Bittings are repeated on different sections in order to increase the number of available change keys, thus enhancing security.
3. Utility patents do not necessarily prevent unauthorized key duplication. US utility patent 5,136,869 claimed, in part, a bow shoulder stop on a tip stopped key. The shoulder stop engaged a slot in the plug face. That engagement was intended to reduce key breakage by transferring the brunt of the torque to the bow. Would this patent protect you from unauthorized key duplication? No. Key blanks and cut keys without a bow shoulder could legally be made and sold all day long! There is no protection for the end user in such a patent. Any key that can be made to operate a lock without infringing on keyway shapes patents should especially be avoided!

Examples of strong utility patents regarding key control

Kaba Peaks and Dom ix-kg patents are very strong. In the case of Dom there is a floating ball bearing embedded in the blank. The ball bearing cooperates with wards and pins in the cylinder and is required for cylinder operation. A properly cut key without the ball bearing will not work. Kaba Peaks blanks have two projections that protrude beyond the silhouette of the key. The top peak raises a separate pin stack to a second shear line in the cylinder. The bottom peak rides in a groove in the shell and retains the key even with no pins in the lock. Both peaks are required for cylinder operation. Without the top peak the plug won’t turn. Without the bottom peak, the patented top pin binds in the bottom of the keyway.

Comparing key control patents

I am not condoning or encouraging the infringement of valid patents. Valid patents must be respected. We all depend on the patent law system. However, new products are entering the patented key control market. In the opinion of many in the industry, some of those products have patents that are actually worthless for key control. Here are five principles to determine a patent’s value for preventing unauthorized key duplication.
1. The patent must be utility patent, not a design patent. Insist on getting the actual patent number. Current design patents have 5-digit numbers, preceded by DES or D. Some companies downplay design patents by omitting these letters. Current utility patent numbers are in the 4 to 5 million range. If a product is “patent pending”, ask when the patent was applied for. If a patent is pending for an inordinate amount of time, the inventor may be having difficulty securing one.
2. The  patent must cover the uncut key blank, and the features on the blank that are necessary for cylinder operation.
What novel feaature does the uncut key blank have that makes it different  from other blanks? Ask what new mechanism or principle is shown, that is, what’s new here? What new principle of lock and key making is revealed on the key blank itself, before the blank is cut?
3. The patented key blank must have a mechanical feature that makes it the only thing that can be used to operate the lock. Exactly how does the novel feature on the blank operate the new mechanism? Does the patent merely cover a process for manufacturing the key?
4. The patent number must be able to stand up in court. If any key can be made to operate the lock and and the patent holder cannot prevent it, the patent is no good  for key control. If the would-be novelty is merely a new keyway shape, buy the product at your own risk. If there is a new mechanism in the cylinder, can a key blank be made without the novel feature that will still enter and operate the lock?
5. The patent should have survived for several years without challenge to its validity. Key control is the foundation of high security.
Secure patented key control is the basis of high security. The most highly pick and drill resistant lock in the world means nothing if a duplicate key can easily and legally be made without the end user’s permission. Patents don’t guarantee that products are necessarily better than others. If a non-infringing key can be made for a patented cylinder, then the patent is worthless for key control. When you sell a product, like it or not, you put your name on it. If there is a problem, the customer comes back and says, “you sold me this, and it didn’t work!” The keying system you install today will be installed in your facility for a long time. Patents must be more than marketing tools. Patents must have merit to prevent unauthorized key duplication. Make sure your key system is protected by a strong patent to prevent unauthorized key duplication.