Famous Last Words?

Monday, 25 February 2013 06:30
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One of the most common and difficult decisions for an inventor is whether or not to invest in a patent for his invention.

Curious to learn more? Read on, dear friends...

Famous Last Words?

"I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." Nathan Hale, American Patriot

"Freedom!!!!" William Wallace, historically famous Scottish badass (as portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart).

"You don't need a patent to sell an idea" Anonymous inventor.

The first two quotes are among the most famous "last words" ever uttered, even if it will never be known whether the real William Wallace (or just the movie version) ever said his. And while I can't definitively say that one must have a patent to successfully sell an idea, I know that companies aren't keen on acquiring unprotected/unprotectable intellectual property.

Many inventors have a common challenge: they (feel they) have a great idea, but are understandably skittish about investing the many thousands of dollars required to obtain a patent without confidence that they will see a return on that investment. On the other hand, some of their behaviors and views don't seem to me as responsible from a business perspective. For instance, many inventors are so enamored of their own creativity, they are unwilling to believe that others could have possibly conceived of a similar idea. As a result, they may not even consider conducting a legitimate patent search to assess the novelty of their invention. They may conduct a casual internet search and draw conclusions based solely on that.

Then they may try to earn interest from corporations on the basis of (perhaps) the claim of having filed a provisional patent application, or they may seek to avoid the issue altogether and hope that the company will want to underwrite the legal costs for obtaining a patent, and will then commercialize the product.

As someone who routinely deals with independent inventors and small start-ups, I hear versions of the above all of the time. In fact, just last week, I spoke with a very bright polymer chemist who shared with me a clever invention that promises to significantly extend a popular grocery product's shelf life. When I asked him for technical proof of his claim, he explained to me that the product should perform as he promised (and his explanation did seem quite reasonable) though he had no data to demonstrate that it does. Further, when I asked him about whether he controls the IP supporting his invention, he responded: "If they (a prospective corporate customer) see something they want they will do the patent work. You don't need a patent to sell an idea." Call me a killjoy, but I am highly skeptical of his notion. I agree that an idea doesn't have to be patented or patentable in order for it to be attractive to a prospective customer. However, I believe it does need to be protectable (even if via trade secrets) in order for them to want to acquire it. Why? Because they'll want to be able to practice it without facing the risk of infringement, and they'll want to be able to keep competitors from practicing it, too.

All of this said, perhaps the inventor is right and I'm the one who is mistaken. I ask you: if you saw a possibly powerful innovation that had strong applicability to your business, would you be willing to work with the inventor in the manner described in the example above?

Here's a link to a great write-up from Paul Quinn, a patent attorney who discusses taking a business responsible approach to inventing: http://www.ipwatchdog.com/2012/09/22/the-business-responsible-approach-to-inventing/id=28173/

What do you think? I welcome your thoughts. If you wish to participate in the discussion, please visit the BFS Innovations website and blog, and reply directly: http://bfsinnovations.typepad.com/

E-mail Bag

In last week's newsletter (What's the Real Problem? "Needs" Aren't "Wants"), I questioned how worthwhile and productive it is for companies to publish their "Needs" on corporate websites. I received a number of replies to this, some agreeing with me, others not. Of these, I wish to highlight Andy Zynga's view. Andy is CEO of NineSigma, a leading technology intermediary firm. He wrote: "We totally agree that there is a difference between those idea portal "needs" and the "real" needs, i.e. problems with funding, urgency and strategic focus. But I think it is still useful for companies to publish their "wish list" as long as there is a real process behind the evaluation process. As you know, we are currently helping clients with both, the urgent needs with the RFP's and the "wish list" with managed galleries."

I accept Andy's view, particularly if in fact, there is a "real process behind the evaluation". I think many of us perceive the process as a black box, offering few clues as to the rigor or the criteria applied to assessing external submissions.

What do you think?

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