You’ve probably heard the saying that there are few guarantees in life. Whoever first mentioned this bit of wisdom must have been an inventor, who despite having secured a patent, wasn’t able to fend off all the sharks unfairly wanting a big bite of the inventor’s intellectual property.
The whole idea behind a patent, of course, is to reward and protect the inventor for coming up with a great idea or product, and all the sweat, labor and time invested in creating it. Patents reward innovation and stimulate the economy. That’s why our founding fathers put it in Article I, Section 8 of our constitution. Generally, a patent is good for 20 years.
How has such a noble idea worked in reality? I’ll be generous and say, “unevenly.”
From your schoolbooks, you’ll probably remember Eli Whitney, the Yankee inventor who gave us the cotton gin, which he invented in 1793 and patented in 1794. The machine that separated seeds from the cotton’s fibers was a game-changer, creating massive fortunes for plantation owners in the Antebellum South. Trouble was, the southerners, backed by their regional courts, didn’t want to pay the Yankee inventor. Their unwillingness to pay for its use, together with the ease with which the gin could be pirated (ripped off), put Whitney’s company out of business by 1797.
When Congress refused to renew his patent, which expired in 1807, Whitney concluded that “an invention can be so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor.”
By the time, Eli got around to creating other ingenious devices and processes, like interchangeable parts and the assembly line that went into making things like rifles, he didn’t bother to patent his inventions.
Of course, that was way back when; such a miscarriage of our laws could never happen in our lifetime, right?
In 1957, over a manic weekend, Gordon Gould, a Columbia University graduate student, drew up the design for a laser and explained how it worked. He thought so highly of it that he took his notes and drawings to a nearby candy store. and notarized them. He didn’t secure a patent at the time because he wrongly believed you needed to show the patent office a prototype (by the way, you don’t).
Lasers are used to create everything from compact discs and laser printers to fiber optic telecommunications networks and in medicine are used in eye surgery and for removing tumors. One can only imagine the royalties.
Soon along came a horde of other similar-minded inventors, forcing Gould to spend the next 30 years in court before he finally was awarded his patent in 1987. He didn’t roll over like Whitney, but three decades of one’s life is a heavy toll to pay to get what you believe to be rightfully yours.
Today, Americans apply each year for more than a half-million patents, of which more than 80 percent are accepted (don’t get too high on your horse; the Chinese are nearing a million a year), but not all the patents are blockbusters. For example, the U.S. Patent Office awarded a patent for creating a crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
The world is truly filled with rewards and possibilities. If you also want guarantees, hire a good lawyer!