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Pick One: Good Ideas or Great Patent Attorneys

In order to protect our thoughts and ideas, we write, issue, and publish patents. With that in mind, you can see why sometimes it's a race to be first or best to market. But the bigger race is making your product protected and unique in such a way that no other person or company can touch it. If you do this and do it right, you can make the competition stop in their tracks. They will have to find a variation in their approach — or maybe just start again on the design.

To be clear, in no way do I mean to disparage or downgrade the value of patents — I have had seven published. However, I wonder whether companies and individuals in our country tend to over-patent. I don't recall for sure which country leads in patents issued and published. It's probably the United States — and most likely because we are a technology leader and have the most engineers.

My concern is that we tend to patent anything and everything, even ideas we know have little chance of turning into a produced device. We all know it's not cheap to get these patents through. In spite of the cost, we tend to go on patent frenzy when a new project starts. In some cases, patents seem to be written a dozen different ways for the same idea. We just use some really creative writing.

Maybe I am just missing a major point to why we patent our ideas, but I wonder what percentage of ideas were really ever used (i.e., actually ended up as a marketed product). Do we use our ability to patent as a marketing tool? Is it done just to promote or make our companies look good? We can say we had this many patents written and accepted and put up a note on the company website.

I just watched a commercial of someone who has three published patents for his water hose design. You may all have seen the hose that expands and contracts. I am wondering why the design needs multiple patents. Is it that complicated?

I just want to know others' opinions on whether the majority of our patents are good legitimate ideas, or do we just flood the technology world with a bunch of cool words? Let me know with your comments, below.

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7 comments on “Pick One: Good Ideas or Great Patent Attorneys

  1. Scott Elder
    November 6, 2013

    Jason, 

     
    Patents are for so much more than protecting a design idea.  In fact, monopoly protection is probably the LAST reason to get a patent.

     
    Smart companies acquire patents primarily (and in no particular order) because:
     
    (1) Those who invest in startups want to believe the technology behind the company has some form of roadblock.  New companies with great ideas need “trading cards” (see 2).  This is one dilemma facing the Twitter IPO.
     
    (2) The first action any company takes after being served for patent infringement is to file a counter suit alleging patent infringement by the other party – the best offense is a good defense.  All companies need huge patent portfolios to add noise to the legal process.  Patents are considered trading cards for settling lawsuits.  You'd better have a nice deck of trading cards when you're forced into court or you will pay handsomely.  Facebook now understands this important aspect of patents.
     
    (3) The public (including 401K and retail investors) associates technological leadership and a company's longevity with the number of patents owned by the company.  Mercedes Benz is one company that exploits this value on television.   http://www.ispot.tv/ad/7dVm/2013-mercedes-benz-e-350-patents
     
    (4) Patents enable using the legal system to slow down a competitor or get them to accept less than favorable terms to a buyout or cross license proposal.
     
    (5) Patents generate substantial revenue through licensing to third parties.  Many licensing agreements are lawsuit settlements where it was cheaper to pay the royalty than fight.
     
    (6) Patents are essentially entry tickets into the legal system.  It is nearly impossible to file a lawsuit in a court without attaching a document to the complaint.  Once the court accepts the lawsuit, the aggressor company can tie up the defendant for a long time causing small companies to burn up scant financial resources and thereby force them to the negotiating table to settle the “real” problem.
     
    (7)  Universities want to sell lots of licenses to startups hoping some will turn into great income.  With enough patented ideas, someone is bound to build a success around one of the patents.  Carnegie Mellon University knows this quite well.  http://www.post-gazette.com/legal/2012/12/26/CMU-wins-billion-dollar-patent-infringement-lawsuit/stories/201212260145
     
    (8)  They add value to an employee's resume.  Similar to (3).
     
    I'm sure others reading your post can add several more reasons to this list.

     

  2. Jason Bowden
    November 6, 2013

    Thank you for this great response.  I think one of my main points, Although I do agree with all you mentioned, is that do we still tend to just patent whatever idea whether good or bad.  Is it still great to have hundreds of patents mostly with jsut junk ideas or fewer patents that made an impact.  Its like haveing a $500,000 home with no furniture inside. Looks awesome on the outside until you go in and start looking around.

  3. Davidled
    November 9, 2013

    These are a good summary for engineering patent. I think that in the bottom line, patent need to be transformed to product generating the revenue in the company.  Patent protects legally the product for a period time in the market.

  4. D Feucht
    November 12, 2013

    Jason,

    The patent is a fundamentally flawed human institution for multiple reasons. Your concerns about it are but a start. They were originally introduced into the U.S. Constitution to stimulate inventiveness but (as with so many “good ideas” of government) in practice they do just the opposite. Thomas Edison holds the largest number of patents and he said near the end of his career that if he had it to do all over again, he wouldn't patent a single thing. A friend of mine who is a founder of a leading electronics company recently expressed similar sentiments. Patents, he said, only give his competitors good ideas.

    More fundamentally, nobody owns ideas. The are part of the intellectual commons of civilization. They are discovered, and consequently were there all along. Who “owns” calculus, Newton or Leibnitz?

    Ideas and working implementations differ only by degree, not kind. Software algorithms and DNA are patentable yet are based directly on general principles that are hard to distinguish from specific instances of their instantiation. This keeps lawyers well-fed.

    Only novel ideas can be patented, yet who is to say what is novel? Novelty to an idiot is obvious to a genius. Lawyers have plenty of work from this.

    How much must an idea differ from an existing patent to be different? What is the same to one person is different to another. This gives lawyers plenty of work.

    As engineers, the patent is a trap that keeps us diverting resources to lawyers, and too many of us fall for it.

    The list of patent flaws is much longer and there are more fundamental problems suitable for an article instead of a response to your stimulating points. Hopefully, the open-source movement will prevail and patents will become another white elephant of human history.

     

  5. Alan S
    November 13, 2013

    Patents serve a purpose.  Why else would a company spend time and money on development (AKA NRE)?  However, this can go too far.  The patent officer questions if the patent application is obvious to one skilled in the trade.  My touchstone is if I can explain it to a co-worker in a few minutes.  My handful of patents would not pass that test, they are patented yet seem quite obvious to me and anyone in the trade.  We have gone too far, patenting the obvious.

  6. Davidled
    November 16, 2013

    In other view, patent would be processed to market place under (fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory) FRAND condition. But, FRAND is not a mature concept at present. Therefore, every business case could be a different. These issues would be addressed correctly as improving the patent quality with patent office. All parties are invited to contribute this process.  

  7. yalanand
    November 30, 2013

    @Jason, In my view , our ideas should patented, the inventor should get the credit for his inventions. If there are no patents then all companies, industries will copy the inventor ideas, which will force the inventor not to disclose his/her ideas which will eventually  hamper the technology development.

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