Patent application title: RF-ID PRODUCT TRACKING SYSTEM WITH PRIVACY ENHANCEMENT
Peter J. Junger (Redmond, WA, US)
Peter J. Junger (Redmond, WA, US)
Nintendo Of America Inc. (Redmond, WA, US)
Nintendo of America Inc.
Class name: Data processing: financial, business practice, management, or cost/price determination automated electrical financial or business practice or management arrangement inventory management
Publication date: 2013-02-21
Patent application number: 20130046659
A method for using electronic product identification devices to track
product sales and enable sales transactions to be registered in an
electronic registration (ER) system without causing privacy or security
concerns for the purchasers. RF-ID devices are placed on products being
sold and include detailed information about the products. When the
products are purchased, the detailed information is loaded into an ER
database and all but a limited amount of information is removed from the
RF-ID device. The limited information is sufficient to enable the
detailed information to be located in the ER database by authorized
individuals in connection with a return transaction or the like.
1. A method of processing a return and/or warranty request in connection
with a presented product, the presented product having an associated
non-electronic unique identifier and an RFID tag attached, directly or
indirectly, to the presented product, the RFID tag having stored thereon,
at least prior to an original sale of the product, RFID tag information
including an electronic product code (EPC), at least some of the RFID tag
information being stored in a record of an electronic registration (ER)
database along with an indication of the non-electronic unique identifier
of the presented product, upon a sale of the product, at least some of
the RFID tag information being removed from the RFID tag prior to the
return and/or warranty request, the method comprising, when product is
presented in connection with the return and/or warranty request:
obtaining the unique identifier from the presented product; retrieving
the record from the ER database based on the obtained unique identifier;
when the presented product qualifies for return and/or warranty service,
writing replacement information to the RFID tag based on data from the
2. The method of claim 1, wherein the associated non-electronic unique identifier is printed on, and the RFID tag is attached to, packaging of the product.
3. The method of claim 1, wherein the unique identifier is embedded in a barcode.
4. The method of claim 1, wherein the unique identifier is a serial number associated with the product.
5. The method of claim 1, wherein the ER database includes a plurality of records for different pre-sold products, each said record including a serial number and a date associated with the sale of the product respectively associated with the record.
6. The method of claim 5, wherein the ER database further includes product-level return policy information useful in making a return/warranty qualification.
7. The method of claim 1, wherein at least some of the RFID tag information is loaded by a manufacturer or supplier.
8. The method of claim 1, wherein at least some of the RFID tag information is pre-loaded prior to initial receipt of the product by a retailer.
9. The method of claim 1, wherein additional information is added to the RFID tag as the product moves through the supply chain.
10. The method of claim 1, wherein at least some of the RFID tag information is removed from the RFID tag as a result of an original sale of the product.
11. The method of claim 10, wherein only a unique identifier of the product and brand information remains on the tag as a result of the original sale of the product.
12. An electronic registration (ER) system, comprising: a computer system including at least one processor; an ER database storing a plurality of records respectively associated with different sold products; a plurality of interfaces to the ER database, the interfaces being respectively accessible by different members of a supply chain; wherein each said record further includes a unique product identifier read from a physical and non-electronic source tied to the associated product, and an item-level electronic code obtained from an electronic tag attached, directly or indirectly, to the associated product.
13. The system of claim 12, wherein the unique identifiers are serial numbers and the electronic codes are electronic product codes (EPCs) read from RFID tags associated with the products.
14. The system of claim 12, wherein the interfaces provide information from the records to supply chain members to re-populate information on product tags based on sales and/or returns of the associated products.
15. The system of claim 12, wherein the database further stores product-level return policy information.
16. The system of claim 12, wherein the unique identifiers are embedded in scannable barcodes.
17. The system of claim 16, wherein the unique identifiers are serial numbers respectively associated with the products.
18. The system of claim 12, wherein the electronic tags include tag information, at least some of which is loaded by a manufacturer or supplier.
19. The system of claim 12, wherein the electronic tags include tag information that is pre-loaded prior to initial receipt of the respective product by a retailer.
20. The system of claim 12, wherein tag information is added to the tags as the respective product moves through the supply chain.
CROSS-REFERENCES TO RELATED APPLICATIONS
 This application is a continuation of application Ser. No. 12/903,933 filed Oct. 13, 2010, now allowed, which is a continuation of application Ser. No. 10/983,337 filed Nov. 8, 2004, now U.S. Pat. No. 7,840,439, which claims priority to Provisional Application No. 60/518,326 filed Nov. 10, 2003, the entire contents of each of which is hereby incorporated in this application.
FIELD OF THE INVENTION
 This invention relates to the field of retail sales and electronic registration of sales transactions. More particularly, this invention relates the use of RF-ID devices on products, and a system for using RF-ID devices on products for performing electronic registration (ER) of product transactions without invading consumer privacy or causing other undesirable conditions.
BACKGROUND AND SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
 Radio Frequency Identification (RF-ID) technology has existed for some time and provides a convenient way of tracking products as well as uniquely identifying products. An RF-ID device is a small electronic device having a memory that can be attached to a product in order to enable electronic identification of the product. Identification information, such as a serial number, as well as other information, such as manufacturer, price, UPC, manufacture date, etc., can be written to the RF-ID device and later read from the device when desired. RF-ID devices can, for example, be used in connection with inventory tracking or other applications in which it is desired to maintain information regarding the product on the product itself. Typically, RF-ID devices are loaded with information relating to the product and then attached to the product, so that the information can be read, updated or supplemented as desired using available RF-ID reading and writing equipment. Examples of RF-ID devices are shown in U.S. Pat. Nos. 5,990,794 and 5,949,335,the disclosures of which are incorporated by reference herein in their entirety.
 Electronic registration (ER) of product transactions has become available for the purpose of reducing unauthorized returns of purchased products. Electronic product registrations systems provided for this purpose are disclosed in, for example, U.S. Pat. Nos. 5,978,774, 6,018,719 and 6,085,172, the disclosures of which are incorporated by reference herein in their entirety. The electronic registration system relies on the use of a unique identifier, such as a serial number, for each product that is purchased. The serial number is obtained at the point of sale for inclusion in a registration database, together with other information, such as a date of transaction Information relating to the specific transaction may also be written to the RF-ID device at the point of sale, such as information that identifies the date of sale, the purchaser, the location of the sale, payment information (e.g., credit card, check number), etc. The registration database can then be accessed in connection with an attempted product return transaction for the purpose of determining if the product qualifies for return under applicable return criteria. Such electronic systems may also be used in connection with repair and/or exchange transactions, in addition to returns, by enabling an accurate determination as to whether the product qualifies for any of these actions under the appropriate policies and criteria under which the product was originally sold.
 FIG. 1 shows an exemplary electronic registration (ER) system of the type described in the ER patents identified above. In such ER systems, products are registered at the point of sale using a unique identifier, such as a serial number, that uniquely identifies the product involved in a sales transaction. By storing the unique identifier along with a date associated with the transaction, as well as return policy information, ER enables prompt, efficient and accurate return transactions to be performed in connection with product returns using the ER system. As shown in FIG. 1, a typical ER system includes a point of sale (POS) transaction register 2, preferably having a scanner or wand 4 associated therewith. The scanner or wand enables efficient and accurate reading of information, such as a serial number, off a product, product packaging, electronic tag (such as an RF-ID tag) or other such device or indicia. The register 2 is connected to a local computer system 6 having local database 8 for storing the transaction information obtained by POS register 2. The local computer system typically has a user terminal 12 and printer 10 connected thereto for accessing and controlling the local computer system 6. The local computer system is, for example, a retailer store computer system and may be connected to other computer systems via channels 13. The local computer system 6 is also preferable connected to a central ER computer system 14 having an associated database 16 which acts as a master ER database. The central computer system 14 also includes a terminal 20 and a printer used in connection with its ER functions. The central computer system 14 is also preferably connected to other local computer systems over channels 12, so that it contains registration information from many retail locations covering many different manufacturer's products. Inasmuch as ER systems are known, and the invention is not directed specifically to an ER system itself, additional specific details regarding ER systems will not be provided herein except as needed for a better understanding of the instant invention.
 While RF-ID devices and electronic registration systems have provided significant benefits in the retail/manufacturing environment, there has not been a effective system that takes advantage of both of these technologies and that does not raise privacy and/or security concerns for the consumer. Retailers, as well as large manufacturers, are eager to move from the current UPC barcode technology towards RF-ID chip technology to improve shipment accuracies and reduce sizable labor costs at various touch points in the logistics cycle. The current hype surrounding RF-ID suggests that these chips will store almost limitless information, have read/write capability, and thereby have widespread applications. Although theoretically possible, the practicality and cost of current technology, as well as concerns over consumer privacy, paint a far more conservative picture in its use and rate of adoption. Although RF-ID has been around for some time, the intended application of RF-ID is new. MIT, IBM, Intel and a host of others, including manufacturers and retailers, are currently researching two categories of use: (1) RF-ID at the "case" level, and (2) RF-ID at the "item" level.
 The instant invention is directed primarily to item level RF-ID and resolving the issue over consumer privacy. One problem being encountered by RF-ID technology is the fear that, once used, anyone with an RF reader can detect and access all information about a person's belongings, which includes financial information such as credit cards, checks, the items a person is wearing, their household belongings, what the items cost, where they were purchased at, and any other private information contained on the RF-ID chip. For example, a thief could use an RF reader to identify every item in a house and their value before entering, or identify expensive items a person is wearing, such as the price of their watch, handbag, camera in their handbag, shoes, etc. In other words, by using RF-ID devices on products and storing significant amounts of confidential, private and/or useful information thereon, a host of possible privacy and security issues are raised. As a result, the benefit is using the technology is quickly overcome by the disadvantages associated with the availability of the information for unauthorized or improper purposes. Accordingly, the true benefits of using RF-ID technology to, for example, reduce improper and fraudulent product returns, has not been realized in today's environment.
 The instant invention addresses these problems by providing a method and system that enables RF-ID devices to be effectively used for item level tracking and ER applications, while eliminating, or at least greatly reducing, the privacy and security concerns raised thereby. Specifically, the instant invention provides a method and system in which sensitive information is removed from the RF-ID device at the POS or other desired location, depending on the specific application in which the instant invention is employed, after that information is read for purposes of electronic registration or the like. For example, the invention involves using the information on the RF-ID device at the POS to obtain information necessary to register the product in an ER system (i.e., to obtain a unique identifier, such as a serial number), and then deleting or overwriting information on the RF-ID chip that could cause privacy or security concerns, such as the price, UPC, SKU or other similar information that provides detailed information about the product and/or the purchaser. Thus, after purchase, the RF-ID chip remains on the product but only contains the unique identifier or other type of indexing information for use in accessing related information in the ER database when the product is presented for return or the like. In accordance with the invention, the detailed product information is no longer available on the RF-ID chip after purchase, but the detailed information can still be obtained by authorized individuals, such as a returns processor, by using the unique identifier on the chip to access the detailed information in the ER database. In this way, only authorized persons can obtain the detailed information by accessing the ER database. Thus, the RF-ID device still serves the valuable purpose of identifying the product and enabling detailed information to be obtained on the product without the fear that an unauthorized individual could obtain the detailed information. In accordance with another aspect of the invention, the RF-ID chip is still useful after a product is returned and re-shelved for re-sale, because the unique identifier on the RF-ID chip can be used at the POS to access the detailed information in the ER database. Thus, an advantage of the invention is that the removing of the detailed information from the chip during the original purchase does not render the chip useless for return or re-sale purposes.
 In accordance with one aspect of the instant invention, a method is provided for use in a system that uses electronic tags on products for storing information related to the products. This aspect of the invention provides a method of managing and using the information in a manner that reduces privacy concerns for purchasers of said products. The method includes the step of loading information on an electronic tag that relates to a product to which the tag is to be attached. Then, upon purchase of the product by a consumer, reading the information from the tag and storing the information in an electronic database, together with an associated unique identifier that uniquely identifies the product relative to other similar products. The product information is then erased from the electronic tag at the point of sale. In addition, the unique identifier is stored on the electronic tag and the electronic tag is maintained on the product after purchase. The unique identifier on the electronic tag is then read in connection with a post sale transaction or inquiry, and the information on the product in the electronic database is accessed using the unique identifier in order to assist with processing of the post sale transaction or inquiry. In one embodiment, loading information on the electronic tag includes preloading at least some of the information on the electronic tag by the product manufacturer or supplier. Loading information on the electronic tag may also include adding information to the electronic tag in the supply chain or by the retailer or seller of the product. Preferably, the electronic database is an electronic product registration database that includes information that enables a determination to be made as to whether or not the product qualifies for return under a return criteria under which the product was originally sold.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
 These and other objects, features and advantages of the instant invention will become apparent from the following detailed description of the invention, when read in conjunction with the appended drawings, in which:
 FIG. 1 shows an overall schematic diagram of a typically electronic product registration system that can be used in connection with the RF-ID/ER method of the instant invention; and
 FIG. 2 shows a general flow chart of the main steps performed in accordance with a preferred embodiment of the RF-ID/ER method of the present invention.
DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE INVENTION
 The preferred embodiment of the instant invention will now be described in connection with the appended drawings. The described embodiment is not meant to limit the invention to the specific details described herein.
 As explained above, FIG. 1 shows an exemplary electronic registration (ER) system of the type described in the ER patents identified above. In such ER systems, products are registered at the point of sale using a unique identifier, such as a serial number, that uniquely identifies the product involved in a sales transaction. By storing the unique identifier along with a date associated with the transaction, as well as return policy information, ER enables prompt, efficient and accurate return transactions to be performed in connection with product returns using the ER system. In the past, the unique identifiers have been provided in the form of bar codes or the like on the products and/or product packaging. The instant invention provides a method of allowing RF-ID or other similar electronic ID devices or tags to be used instead of, or addition to, bar codes in connection with ER without causing privacy or security concerns for the purchasers of such products. As a result, RF-ID devices can be used for item level tracking as well as ER in an effective and advantageous manner.
 A preferred embodiment of the system and method of the present invention will now be described. Products being offered for sale are provided with RF-ID tags which contain desired information from the manufacturer and/or retailer, such as serial number, SKU, UPC, manufacturing date, price, return qualification information etc. Thus, in addition to simply reading a unique identifier, such as a serial number, from the product, an advantage of the RF-ID device is that a variety of additional detailed information (e.g. weight, price, product description, expiration date, etc.) may be provided on the RF-ID device. In fact, manufacturers could put almost any kind of information on the RF-ID device that could later be read therefrom in connection with electronic registration either at the point of sale or at another time. In addition, further information could be written to the RF-ID device at any time, either by the manufacturer, retailer or other authorized party for almost any reason.
 When a product is presented for sale, the product is brought to a sales register and the information on the RF-ID device is read using a wand or the like, including the serial number of the product. That information, and a date associated with the product transaction, is then loaded into the ER system, thereby registering the product transaction. The ER system also includes return qualification criteria that is associated with the transaction information for use in determining return qualification of the product if and when the purchaser attempts to return the product to a retailer for refund, credit or warranty. In other words, the sales assistant scans the RF-ID device to obtain the relevant information for the sale. That information is then used for the sale and some or all of that information is sent to an ER database to register the sales transaction for future reference in connection with a return or warranty transaction.
 In accordance with the invention, after completing the sale, at a retailer's POS register (or equivalent), a device removes/erases all information, including the item's equivalent SKU or UPC information/number contained on the product and/or product packaging RF-ID chip. The only exception in this embodiment, would be the product "brand" name, and the individual product's unique identifier (current product serial number). The same result could be achieved by a device at the checkout counter first reading all information contained on the chip, storing it in a database, erasing all information on the chip, and then rewriting the brand and unique identifier (current serial number), or a combined number representing brand/unique identifier (current serial number), back on the RF-ID chip. Once the consumer leaves the store, a RF reader only could determine the brand name and the serial number (item unique identifier), and not any other information such as price, type of product, the retailer it was purchased from, etc. To identify a product and recover the product history (date shipped, sold date, price, retailer who sold it, returns eligibility, warranty entitlement, etc.) a person with the proper authorization would have to access the ER database and use the brand ID and serial number to retrieve the information from the database.
 To process a customer item returned back to the seller, the seller's RF reader detects the brand name and unique identifier (current serial number) on the RF-ID tag, accesses the ER database and locates the original sales transaction record and information originally read from the RF-ID tag when the item was sold. Additionally, information is provided from the database and/or another database detailing the product's eligibly for return to the seller and/or back to the supplier/manufacturer, based on return qualification information available in these databases based on the sale date or other criteria. To further serve the customer, information on the individual product's warranty repair entitlement can also be accessed from a database and made available at the time the item is presented for return.
 If a product is returned, the returned item can be re-shelved for re-sale. Items returned back to the seller are often in "like new" condition. Thus, the seller often desires to simply re-shelve the product for re-sale. When a re-shelved product is presented for purchase by another customer, the seller's RF reader detects the brand name and unique identifier (current serial number), accesses the ER database and locates the original sales transaction record and information originally read from the RF-ID chip when the item was first sold. Additionally, information is provided from the database and/or another database detailing the product's eligibility for return to the seller. When the item is resold, the seller's RF reader only detects the brand and unique identifier (current serial number), as all of the other information has been removed from the RF-ID chip. This enables the sellers system to retrieve all pertinent information, such as item type and price, from the database and process the sale of the item. The system appends the new sale date for the item and all other transaction information and stores it in the ER database for future use. Since all sensitive information was already purged from the RF-ID chip, and only the brand and unique identifier (current serial number) remain, no further action is needed. The new purchaser can leave with the product having the RF-ID on it without the fear that the information could be misused. If the product is returned again, the same cycle repeats itself with respect to the RF-ID information and ER database information. Thus, by using the ER database to store the detailed information on the product and product transaction and only keeping enough information on the RF-ID device to enable the detailed information to be located in the database, the RF-ID device and the ER system work together to achieve significant benefits for the manufacturer, retailer and customer without the fear that the information originally on the RF-ID device could be misused in a way that would violate customers privacy or compromise their security.
 FIG. 2 shows a high-level flow chart of a preferred embodiment of the RFID/ER method of the instant invention. In accordance with the method of the instant invention, the vendors and/or manufacturers put RF-ID devices on their products prior to shipping the products to a retail location for sale. The RF-ID device may take any known suitable form such as an RF-ID tag or other type of tag. While tags operating by RF signals are preferred, other suitable technology that provides a similar identification function may also be used within the scope of the instant invention. In other words, the invention is not limited to RF devices. The manufacturer may write or load any desired information (in additional to the unique identifier) onto the device prior to or after attaching the device to the product. The information added is preferably information that the manufacturer desires to have added to the ER database for later reference. After the products having the RF-ID devices are ready, the products are shipped in a conventional manner to the retailers that sell the products.
 When a retailer receives products having RF-ID tags, the retailer offers the products for sale along with, for example, other products not having such ID devices. When a product having an RF-ID device (or other ID device) is brought to the point of sale location for purchase, the sales associate at the store reads the serial number (or other unique identifier) off the product using a scanner, or from the RF-ID device itself using an RF wand, thereby obtaining the necessary unique identifier for enabling the product to be registered in the transaction database, in the manner described in the electronic registration patents identified above. In addition to simply reading a unique identifier, such as a serial number, from the product, an advantage of the RF-ID device is that a variety of additional detailed information (e.g. weight, price, product description, expiration date, etc.) may be provided on the RF-ID device. In fact, manufacturers could put almost any kind of information on the RF-ID device that could later be read therefrom in connection with electronic registration either at the point of sale or at another time. In addition, further information could be written to the RF-ID device at any time, either by the manufacturer, retailer or other authorized party for almost any reason. The information read, including the serial number of the product and a date associated with the product, is then loaded into the ER system, thereby registering the product transaction. The ER system also includes return qualification criteria that is also associated with the transaction information for use in determining return qualification of the product if and when the purchaser attempts to return the product to a retailer for refund, credit or warranty.
 In accordance with the invention, the sales associate then erases all of the sensitive information from the RF-ID device, thereby only leaving the brand and the unique identifier. It is also possible to only leave the unique identifier; however, leaving the brand information reduces the number of serial numbers required by allowing a series of serial numbers to be used for each brand. Another option is to erase all of the information from the RF-ID device and then write the brand and unique identifier back to the RF-ID device. Either way, the detailed information is provided to the ER system and only limited information remains on the RF-ID device. Thus, the RF-ID device and the ER system work together to provide the benefits of each without causing privacy or security concerns.
 As shown on the right side of FIG. 2, when the customer returns a product having an RF-ID thereon, the seller detects the brand and unique identifier information and uses that information to retrieve the original sales transaction data from the ER database. This information enables the seller to determine if the product qualifies for return based on the appropriate return policy under which the product was originally sold. If the seller accepts the return, the seller may either return the product to the shelves for resale or return the product to the supplier or manufacturer. If the product is re-shelved, the limited information on the RF-ID device can again be used to obtain the detailed information that was originally on the RF-ID device from the ER database. Thus, the RF-ID device still serves its intended function even after the product is sold and returned.
 As can be understood from the description of the invention herein, the invention combines the benefits of ER with the benefits of RF-ID devices to provide a system which takes advantage of both of these technologies without causing privacy or security concerns for consumers. For example, by removing the detailed information from the RF-ID device at the POS, unauthorized individuals will not be able to obtain that information. However, the detailed information will still be available to authorized individuals through the ER system.
 While the invention has been described in connection with what is presently considered to be the most practical and preferred embodiment, it is to be understood that the invention is not to be limited to the disclosed embodiment, but on the contrary, is intended to cover various modifications and equivalent arrangements included within the spirit and scope of the invention.
Patent applications by Peter J. Junger, Redmond, WA US
Patent applications by Nintendo of America Inc.
Patent applications in class Inventory management
Patent applications in all subclasses Inventory management