Some inventors ignore patent protection, but it can have value
- February 12, 2018
- Posted by: Bishop Group
- Category: Blog
An obituary in The Times of London this week got us thinking about the value of patents. John Wall, who died in January, was an English amateur astronomer who invented an eyepiece that enables telescopes to focus smoothly. It is known as the Crayford eyepiece, named after the Kent town in which he was born. He never patented the invention. “It was,” he said, “a gift to the community.”
For better or for worse, not all inventors are that charitable and even those who do patent their inventions don’t always come out of the process as winners.
Of those inventions that one might have expected to be patented and were not, perhaps the most dramatic example is the Salk vaccine, the first to prevent polio, a disease dreaded well into the 20th century. In April 1955, following a trial that included 1.8 million children, Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was declared safe and effective. Interviewed on television, he was asked who owned the patent and famously answered, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Development of the vaccine had been mostly financed by millions of small donations to an American charity.
Going back in time, there is the case of John Walker, an English chemist who invented matches in 1824 when he produced a sulphur paste that sparked when rubbed against a rough surface. He refused to patent the invention and, although he made some money from sales of matches (which he called “Congreves” in honour of the inventor Sir William Congreve), he was only credited with his creation after he died in 1859.
Some people who did make the effort to patent their inventions didn’t fare too well. Laszlo Biro, born in Budapest, became frustrated by fountain pens. He invented a rolling ball-tip that became the ballpoint pen he introduced in 1938. Although he patented the pen, financial difficulties forced him to sell the invention to Italian businessman Marcel Bich in 1945. His company, Bic, has benefited from the estimated 100 billion pens sold subsequently.
The American inventor Douglas Engelbart, who died in 2013, created the computer mouse in 1968 and patented the device. But he was ahead of his time. The patent ran out in 1987 before the technology came into general use. Since then an estimated one billion have been sold. More recently, Floridian Catherine Hettinger, who has been credited with inventing the fidget spinner, patented the toy but was forced to let the patent lapse in 2005 because she could not afford $400 to renew it. In September 2017 The Economist reported that possibly as many as 50 million had been sold.
Certainly, patenting an invention can be advantageous, although some people doubt the ultimate good. Stephen Kinsella of the Center for the Study of Innovative Freedom claimed in a post on infojustice.org that: “The patent system distorts, skews and hampers innovation and competition, imposes hundreds of billions of dollars of net costs on the U.S. and global economy every year and is not necessary to stimulate innovation.”
On the other hand, patents can provide inventors with the protection necessary to achieve the rewards of their creativity and persistence. In the words of Jehangir Choksi, now an in-house lawyer with Richemont International Ltd., a properly considered patent strategy can balance “the speculative value of an invention with the costs.”