Getting a patent is exciting, but there are plenty of risks

Graham Harris
Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Having a patent is just like winning a fast-track to a roller coaster: you feel great walking past the queues waving your ticket, until you get on the ride, and then it is an unpredictable journey of highs and lows that can result in you crashing back down to earth with an almighty bump.

I have people contact me regularly with ideas that they think will be the next big thing because someone has told them about my success in taking products to market after patenting them. The perception among all of them, which I waste no time in dispelling, is that securing a patent is like winning the lottery – enough in itself to prompt breaking open the champagne in celebration.

My immediate thoughts are: how much money do they have put aside? Would they risk their house? Should they risk their house? Unfortunately, it is hard to approach the subject of contingency planning, because most of these inventors have already scraped and borrowed money from friends and family just to get their product off the ground.

I was offered patent insurance many years ago, but it amounted to tens of thousands of pounds that I didn’t have at the time, so we chose to put money aside and still do. 

My advice to people who find themselves with a granted patent is to think carefully about what they should do with it. Is there a big enough market for their idea to succeed  (and this certainly doesn’t include asking their mum or uncle). Just because you are clever or lucky enough to get a patent doesn’t mean you are good enough to start a business: there are endless hoops you have to jump through, and it can break your morale.

When I think about it – which I don’t allow myself to do very often – I feel let down by the lack of protection inventors receive. I had to fight a case in America and just as I signed up with my lawyers, they told me it could cost me $1 million if this went all the way. I had to patiently fight this case for almost three years. The infringers often sniggered when I saw them selling copies of my products at trade shows, but I couldn’t do anything about it. Some of the profit these guys were making paid their lawyers fees to defend their case; it was a complete nonsense.

Many, many times people said to me – including my family and staff – "Why bother? Why put yourself through this?" It was sometimes a lonely path to take, but since we succeeded, we have won back business and many manufacturers have come cap in hand to buy our products because the cheap copies are gone. Quite a few big companies in the USA were waiting for the outcome of our law suit; we sent out a message when we reached a settlement. Unfortunately, my example is not typical and all too often the catalysts of some amazing ideas are treated with utter contempt and their products are swallowed up by large entities.

I would, therefore, advise inventors to talk to someone with personal experience of bringing ideas to the market. I would also tell them to be secretive, picking appointments carefully and getting potential users of their technology to sign confidentiality agreements.

You can read PrintWeek's Briefing on patents here

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