By Alan C. Brawn CTS, ISF-C, DSCE, DSDE, DSNE, DCME
As we look at modern society, one of the elements that is the most omnipresent in our daily lives is change. Few things seem to remain the same for very long. In fact, at no time in recorded history have we had such a pervasive and sometimes daunting sense of worldwide constant change whether it is in our society overall or in our personal lives. More often than not, technologies and their advancements are involved and driving those changes. Just pause for a moment and think about it. Ask yourself what parts of your life are the same as they were only a few short years ago.
Changes most often begins with an idea that germinates inside one’s mind and then develops, not unlike a plant growing from a tiny seed. The difference in the ideas that crop up today and those in the past is the capability to make those ideas a reality. Harking to the past in the 1940s and 1950s, in an old but not forgotten cartoon, Dick Tracey had a two way wrist radio. Radios back in the day were huge and while the idea of a radio communication device on your wrist seemed neat, it was science fiction and totally out of the realm of possibility. Thinking about things beyond our reach has historically been entertaining but our reach has narrowed the gap between impossible and doable over the last 50 years.
We look at ideas differently today and embrace the concept that “where there is a will there is a way” and more often than not there is a way. The challenge is to find it. The distance between an idea and a “way” takes time, further thought, and perhaps a little bit of trial and error to make the idea come to fruition. Almost all of us at one time or another have seen something on TV or read about something and said to ourselves, “Wow, I thought about that years ago but never did anything about it”. This thought is usually accompanied by a lament because the person who actually did something about the idea ended up getting paid for it and sometimes became rich because of it. As the kids say today, it is what it is but let’s turn our attention to the person who actually did something about the idea.
It is often said that there are no new ideas but only variations on a theme. While I do not totally agree with that, if we think about it, more often than not it is true. We start with an individual concept or element and blend others things to it and voila, we have a “new” concept/idea/process or thing. We can take this back in the annals of history and think about a computer. It dates back to the abacus which was a clever mechanical way of counting and doing math. A modern computer is an advanced electronic way of dealing with assigned numbers with all sorts of meanings and producing a sum which may be a number or information of one type or another. Numbers are assigned, recorded, combined, etc. and new information pops out. In other words, an abacus. For some reason there is comfort in knowing that what is old is new and what is new is old. Perhaps this all boils down to a laws of physics thing which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed.
The common denominator of all change is the core idea or concept, no matter where it came from. This can actually be a problem in that an idea may start with one person but at some critical point it must see the light of day outside one a creative person’s mind. Out in the open, the idea is subject to scrutiny and further development before becoming a reality. Along with coming out in the open, a significant risk rears its ugly head. That risk is theft. As a warrior going into battle needs protection and a defense against their enemies, so it is with an idea. Remember what we said in the beginning. How many of us have said that we thought of an idea first but did nothing about it? Had we done something about it and then had a way to protect it then we might be sitting in the proverbial cat bird’s seat today.
This begs the question of how to protect the idea and the results of that idea. Of course we have things called patents that supposedly protect our ideas but many do not understand what goes into a patent and some of the possible pitfalls so let’s explore that a bit. So…just what is patent?
According to an overview by the US Patent Office, “A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Generally, the term of a new patent is 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed in the United States. U.S. patent grants are effective only within the United States, U.S. territories, and U.S. possessions. Under certain circumstances, patent term extensions or adjustments may be available.
The right conferred by the patent grant is, in the language of the statute and of the grant itself, “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States. What is granted is not the right to make, use, offer for sale, sell or import, but the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention. Once a patent is issued, the patentee must enforce the patent without aid of the USPTO. There are three types of patents:
1) Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof;
2) Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture; and
3) Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.
To the first order, a patent has to be novel, non-obvious and useful and it provides exclusive rights granted by the government to an inventor or assignee for a limited period of time in exchange for the public disclosure of an invention. One of our favorite acronyms today is IP which stands for intellectual property. That terms recognizes that just as hard goods can be property, ideas and thoughts aka intellectual property, has intrinsic worth as well and both economic and technological developments by rewarding the time spent developing ideas. Some companies specialize in coming up with the first stages of developing ideas and they may have a variety of patents or in the early stages, patents pending. These are contained within their “patent portfolios” and these have combined value as certainly as real estate has value.
For those considering developing products and applying for patents, here are some words to the wise before you invest thousands of dollars in product development and securing a patent. Our fair warning is to begin at the beginning to ensure that a patent is a good move. Keep in mind that only 2 to 3 percent of all patented products ever see the light of day. The first step is to define the market in which your product will reside and determine how large it is. If it’s too small, your product may not be commercially viable. The next step is to conduct patent research to make sure you are not infringing on someone else’s patent. You can do it yourself via the US Patent Office or hire a company to do it for you. You are looking for existing patents and what they call “prior art” which is a design that had been registered. Once that has been done you should develop a prototype to determine your product’s design viability in actual operational form and this leads to the final design you may want to patent. Once the prototype is completed you can determine how much it will cost to manufacture. If it costs more to make than the market is willing to pay, your invention is just a money pit. While this may seem obvious to some, many rush to judgment and make decisions that have not been fully thought out. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of patents.
There are numerous advantages of patents put also some disadvantages so let’s examine both sides of the issue. Of course a patent provides a form of protection (20 years) along with exclusivity of use and gives the holder the right to stop others from manufacturing, copying, selling or importing the patented goods without permission. The patent holder can license the patent to others for their use and collect royalties. For a potential big payday, the patent holder can sell the patent any price they believe to be suitable. Ultimately a patent rewards inventors with the a number of advantages and in a broader sense, patents creates bigger and better discoveries built on what is now public knowledge. In actual use, patents tend to beget other patents either form the original patent holder or form others.
While many see just the positive aspects of patents, there are some negatives or disadvantages. First of all, applying for patent is not as simple as it may seem via those horrible TV ads we love to hate and can be a very a lengthy, time consuming and sometimes expensive process involving patent attorneys. Many companies do not apply for patents because the expense exceeds the value of the patent. A patent is issued in exchange for the public disclosure with a full description published in the public domain and can be viewed by anyone including your competitors. Patents are very specific and in some cases they can be worked around by other with nefarious intent. Yes this might mean lawyers and you must be prepared to defend your patent if need be. Taking action against infringement is costly and there are people known as patent trolls who make their living this way. They accuse you of patent infringement and rather than fight the lawsuit you settle whether guilty or not!
Looking at all sides of the issue, patents can be a useful tool to help promote technological advancement. A patent is not and end goal unto itself for most companies, rather a means to protect the time and money spent in developing a product. Part of this process of research and development is known in the AV industry as NRE or non-recurring engineering. It boils down to paying up front for all the work that has gone into the development of that brilliant idea. One good example is Premier Mounts, a recognized technological leader in the mounting industry, as they developed their Habitat product line. In simple form it is an enclosure that protects against the extremes of the environments in which a display must live. It does so by advanced thermal and mechanical engineering and (drum roll please) does not require complex heater and/or air conditioners to achieve their objectives. The idea itself was not expensive but getting there was and this investment must be repaid. A patent was a perfect way to protect that investment and encourage a company like Premier Mount to continue to develop more “problem solving” products.
To sum it up, yes we live in a changing world and some changes are for the best and frankly some can be unsettling but there is one thing that we can agree upon and that is never ending need to explore new ideas and solutions. For those of us affected by all the changes and this includes everyone reading this article, our task is to support the visionaries, protect their ideas and products with things like patents, and embrace the new capabilities that they provide for us.