Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fast ideas, slow patents

Making products is more important than making patents. I like the way that Seth Godin put it at the end of this post about selling ideas:

"Side note: the more complicated your idea is, the better off you are patenting it. Dean Kamen made his fortune patenting wheelchairs and other devices that you and I could never hope to build. On the other hand, if your idea is simple enough to dream up in a week, the only way you're going to protect it is to build it, fast and well."
Patents are important and have a place in product development, but actually making something important has a far bigger impact on the world. Important does not have to be big or complicated – important solves problems (even small ones) and improves our lives.

In my line of work the whole issue of patents, idea protection and non–disclosure often arises. Protecting an idea in the early conceptual phase is crucially important. At this point anyone that can get hold of the idea has an equal chance of getting an actual product to market – that is why all my communications with clients and potential clients are considered confidential.

There are some problems with trying too hard to protect your idea,
  1. It may not be worth protecting

    Many ideas are not patentable, as prior art already exists. Non–patentable ideas still have value – great beats good, remarkable beats mediocre. Improving on existing products, or turning old ideas into real products are important functions which need to happen continuously.

  2. It slows things down

    While you are busy building a legal fortress around your idea other people are busy building working versions of theirs. Having a market share and being ahead of everyone else may matter more than having the legal rights to an idea which has passed its sell by date.

  3. Your idea is out there

    When you patent something it becomes public – everyone knows what you are doing. Competitors may be able to do something innovative with your ideas sooner than you can.

  4. It might not work

    It is possible to design around patents. If your competitors can come up with their own innovative ways to compete in the same market then your patent may not win you much in the long run. You can still compete, you can still be the best, but what you do keeps you ahead, not a legal document.

  5. You have to be able to enforce it

    Regardless of what legal protection you have you still need to be able to enforce it. That means legal fees – can your afford to pay for your protection? It is certainly necessary in some cases, but which would you rather do: fight legal battles or make things that matter?

So if legal protection is not all that it is made out to be, what do you do then? Keep it secret and get your idea onto the market. Develop it into a great product, stay ahead of your competitors and keep innovating. Make sure your great ideas see the light of day – avoid letting them get bogged down in legal paperwork.

You will need to work hard, you will need to stay ahead, and yes, a competitor might just be better than you at it and there will not be any legal papers to throw at them. There is risk involved no matter how you approach it.

There are so many brilliant ideas out there. You probably already know a couple that will change your industry or the way your work. You probably read about one on a blog last week. Making those ideas real is important.

Engineer Simplicity helps companies and people develop ideas into real electronic products. I can help you move your idea from conception through to production. Contact me with your ideas – I will keep them safe and confidential.

Images courtesty of Alexandre Dulaunoy, licensed under a Creative Commons license.


Pieter said...

This is something I'm also pondering: patents. I read an interesting article in one of my 2008 IEEE Spectrums about new ideas and they mentioned that other methods to consider are copyright and trademarks (depending on the actual idea, of course). In some cases it's better to just go for copyright. There are also different cost and protection considerations.

Duncan Drennan said...

You also need to consider that the laws governing these things is a bit different in RSA compared to the USA. One significant difference is that software can be patented in the USA, while in South Africa this is not possible. Software falls under our copyright laws.

Someone pointed me towards this interesting link about avoiding patents (although I still need to read the articles).

Fluxor said...

I'm in the middle of a patent filing right now. I do it for the bonus and the recognition from management. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother given the amount of paperwork that is needed in filing a patent. It's a fairly large disincentive to do so for the regular working engineer.

The real satisfaction comes from seeing your invention work and out in the marketplace, not from filing a patent.

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