Keeping ahead of the game…

Legal protections for creativity have evolved over time and differ depending on the area of invention.  One can argue whether humanity is better off when good ideas are protected like this, but certainly economically it can make a difference both to individuals and companies.  It shouldn’t be ignored lightly.

Protection for popular culture – music, film, fashion and art – is maybe better understood than for other areas.  Illegal downloads hit the headlines every now and again.  Classic books get reprinted frequently once royalties no longer need to be paid.  Trading standards raid traders in counterfeit items.

Examples of patent references on modern packaging and an old artifact.

I first heard about patents to protect new engineering solutions when I was quite small.  I remember my father explaining what they were for after he was granted a patent for something he had designed.  Then I started noticing patent messages, almost as warnings, printed or moulded into items such as: “Patent applied for.”

Patents also share information.  I watched a programme a while ago describing how the invention of the clipping system and the definition of the size of shipping containers, led to the creation of a new industry.  The brilliance here was not just in identifying a problem and solution, but allowing everyone to use the solution, while the company positioned itself to take a lion’s share of this new transport market.

Sometimes a patent may be an expensive luxury.  In some rapidly evolving consumer markets a product may have come into fashion and gone again before a patent is granted.  Only if this development is part of an on-going technical evolution is a patent necessarily a good investment.

However in a competitive, high tech market – especially if the product has a long development period and long in-service life – protecting one’s good ideas is vital to remain at the top of the game.

Today I feel really frustrated having heard that a company which should have known better has been neglecting the efficent submission of patents.  And it will cost them millions.

The timeline appears to have gone:

  • Idea
  • Build idea into design 
  • Design tested
  • Idea written down 
  • Test results considered
  • Idea submitted to patent office.

A competitor also had this idea.  At about the time that here the test results were being considered, unbeknown to the company, the competitor was submitting the same idea to the Patent Office – ahead of them.

Meanwhile the idea was being built into the next generation of equipment, possibly with other components specificallyy design to work with it.  The whole assembly was being tested and found to be a success.  

Then the slowly turning wheels of the Patent Office declared that the competitor – had got the idea submitted first.  Now the company can’t use this idea without infringing the competitor’s patent, at the risk of a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

So a new solution to this problem must be found, and several years of development and testing has been wasted.

Yes, it does cost to apply for a patent.  And it does cost to maintain that patent registration.  And it does cost to apply for patents not just in one country, but in each country or area.

But not applying for patents quickly and efficiently as soon as an important, new idea is identified can cost far more – even result in a company becoming bankrupt.

The UK needs to do two things;

  • ensure that company directors all understand the importance of this process so that they give it the financial support and managerial attention it deserves, and
  • make sure that the process works efficiently to the UK’s benefit. 
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28 Responses to Keeping ahead of the game…

  1. John Richardson says:

    The success of a product shouldn’t depend on who wins the race to file arcane legal paperwork. I understand your suggestions are meant to be pragmatic but if the company in your story had filed for a patent earlier the waste of development time would simply have been transfered to the competitor. There’d be no net gain in productivity or less waste of human effort.

  2. Ian says:

    Protecting early in the process (and certainly before “disclosure”) is essential. As a project progresses more finance and design is committed and so take more effort and cost to make a change. Knowing earlier on in the development process means you can choose an alternative solution and still make it to market on time. There is some good advice at the UK Patent office (www.ipo.gov.uk) and at a number of inventors clubs and forums.

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