What Your Patent Can’t Do

Alas, as I said on another page, getting a patent is no guarantee of riches. That's only the first of many steps. Someone has to develop the invention into a marketable product, arrange for manufacturing and advertising, then run the business. And, there has to be a market for the product once it's ready to sell.

This is a game private individuals, unless they have a lot of time and money to spend and friends and relatives to help, aren't likely to win, patent or no patent. That's why VentorBridge prefers to work with established small businesses which have already identified a market but just need some help getting the product perfected and patented.

If you do decide, as an individual, to get a patent, please don't go to those guys on TV! Instead, identify — at the start! — a small business you know and trust, which will work with you to get the patent and bring the product to market. You can then either assign the patent to them before it issues or license it to them later, for some fixed royalty per year or a percentage of whatever income they make from your invention. Your patent attorney can help you decide which of these routes to take.

Even then, that's sometimes not enough….

Some years back, stranded at night in a parking lot with battery dead, I accepted a jump start from a kind passer-by. Unfortunately neither of us had a flashlight, and it was mostly by luck that we got the jumper cables hooked up right, avoiding sparks or worse.

So I got to thinking: what if I could make a “smart” jumper cable that would eliminate the guesswork? The Government lab where I was working saw merit in the idea, so let me develop and prototype it and we applied for — and were granted — a patent.

Since developing highway safety products was “not part of our Mission,” the lab started advertising for a partner in that business to license the patent and bring the product to market. The word, though, seemed to fall on deaf ears. While lots of people said they'd gladly buy a product like that, no one seemed to want to manufacture it. And that went on for years. They were still looking for that “jumper cable” partner when I left the lab five years later to work with the licensee for a different patent.

Patents, at least in the United States, expire twenty years after the date of first filing with the PTO. Filed in 1991, the jumper cable patent was due to expire in 2011. Unless filed internationally, though, a U.S. patent has no force abroad. Yet engineers there are free to read U.S. patents, to sell products based on them, to use those ideas in inventions of their own, and even to patent them in other nations while the original patents remain active here at home….

So I guess I should feel flattered that sometime in the “twenty-oughts” some French engineers developed, and a major tire manufacturer patented, what looks suspiciously similar to what I'd described back in 1991:

Did the French “steal” my invention? No; what they did was perfectly legal. One aim of publishing patents, in the U.S. or elsewhere, is to give the public access to those inventions. When the patents expire, then, anyone can use those ideas. Nor can the same invention, once patented anywhere, be patented again in another country by a different inventor.

And, it does look like they made some improvements. I've not pulled one of theirs apart to see how much of it's mine, but I know my design didn't include surge protectors, and theirs does. That made it “novel” enough, it seems, for a French examiner to agree it was patentable there.

Michelin must still have had problems, though, trying to bring these jumpers to the U.S. market. That was in 2010, when my patent still had about a year to run. I saw some favorable reviews, but by the time I went shopping for one to take apart, they'd vanished again. With the growth of the international Web market, though, and with the U.S. patent long expired, they do seem to be making a cautious reappearance…though I'm sure at this late date, I'll never get a penny back from it!

Lesson learned: when your patent issues, if you can't get the invention to market by yourself, be sure you already have somebody lined up who can. If not, you may be in for some unfortunate surprises: not the least, perhaps, being that far from getting your promising technology out into the world, your patent has actually made its way there more difficult.

Sorry, Michelin.

Sorry, night-stranded U.S. drivers….