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Thursday, 18 March 2010

Failure & Neglect

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The Story of the Inventive Man Who Didn't Patent His Invention

Once, in a faraway land, an inventive man observed a social phenomenon. He saw how society did things, used things, and thought about things. He observed a problem, but society did not know that it had a problem. It was just that he wasn't satisfied with the way things were done. The inventive man came up with an idea to solve the problem. He used a few common things, put them together in a new way, and solved the problem -- the problem, which to him, was a problem, but was not a problem to society at large. It was, if anything, an unnecessary innovation. But in time, they came to appreciate it. They found that the innovation -- if that was what it was -- was likeable, attractive, and less bulky. Or perhaps they found it easier to use, lighter, more intuitive, and more modern. Whatever the reason, society embraced it wholly, and was much delighted with the innovation. But society forgot the inventive man who created it.

"It's just a concept!" cried the manufacturers. "It's just an idea! And we're benefitting society, too! Why, if we had to give the inventive man something for every time we made money off the invention . . . we'd be poorer! (Slightly poorer, actually.) And the inventive man would be richer! (Well, slightly richer, actually.) It wouldn't be fair! We'd have to bump up the price of this thing to earn as much as we do, right now."

The inventive man had perceived a problem that no one else perceived. The inventive man had created a solution for it. And he had nothing to show for it. What a shame!

Some inventors live with the illusion that success will come automatically if they invent something. On the contrary, inventing is just the first step. There are other things which need to be done to ensure success!

This story isn't as far fetched as it may seem. Many people have come across inventive ideas, solutions to problems that only they perceive. Yes, it is possible for people to do things as they always have -- or, they can explore a solution for the future. Why is it that we choose to ride cars instead of walking? Why is it that we choose to use electric lightbulbs instead of candles? Why is it that we choose to vacuum large expanses and narrow nooks, instead of sweeping and dusting by hand? It is simply because they represent a more elegant, efficient, faster, and cost-effective method of doing things!

It is hard to estimate how much an inventor may have made by registering a patent, or how much he has lost by failing to register the patent. However, the following examples from history may illustrate the problem and provide a better understanding.

Sewing Machine

It is said that Walter Hunt had invented the first functional sewing maching in the early 1830's, but had failed to patent the invention. By 1846, another inventor, Elias Howe, would invent and patent the lock stitch sewing machine. Life was tough for Mr Howe as he could not find backers to commercialize his invention -- he tried to find a backer both in America and in England, but met with no success. By the end of the 1840's, Mr Howe found that his invention was being copied and sold by businessmen who had the money to invest into mass production and marketing. One of these was Isaac Singer. From 1850 to 1854, Mr Howe fought a legal battle against Mr Singer and other manufacturers. Eventually Mr Howe won, on account of being the rightful holder of the patent for the sewing machine. A settlement was reached, and Mr Howe was paid a handsome settlement -- about $200,000 per annum. Mr Howe died at the age of 49, just as his patent was expiring -- but not before receiving $2 million in settlement income. He was buried in a grave just 75 feet from Mr Hunt! The grave of Mr Howe, the holder of the patent, is grand and decorated; the grave of Mr Hunt, the inventor who chose not to patent, is just so-so. It shows the difference that a patent can do for an inventor. (Source: Investor's Business Daily, 14th April 2009. He Sewed Up An Iconic Patent. Subscription-based access only. The full article was accessed at: Bay Ledger News Zone, 15th April 2009. He Sewed Up An Iconic Patent.)

The story is noted and told a little differently in US Patent #4,470,360 ("Sewing Machine", inventor: Leif Gerlach. Issued 11th Sept 1984). From the description of the patent, comes the discussion of the prior art:

(Please click on the image to read the original patent at Google Patents)

Daisuke Inoue -- Karaoke Inventor

Born in 1940, Inoue began playing in a 6 piece bar band in Kobe, in 1970. In 1971, a devoted customer (the president of a small steel company) was scheduled to perform a song and asked Inoue to play musical accompaniment for his performance. Inoue could not attend. Inoue's playing style was suited to the customer's slow singing style. To prevent the customer from feeling disappointed, Inoue recorded his playing and handed it to the customer, who sang his song perfectly. Encouraged by the success, Inoue and his friends created the first 11 karaoke machines, boxes fitted out with tapes and amplifiers, to provide musical accompaniment for pub-goers in Kobe. The invention was never patented. It became a success three years later and was much copied and improved upon by big companies. Inoue, on the other hand, did not profit directly from his invention. By the time someone suggested that he patent the invention, it was much too late. Much later, Inoue would create and sell a pesticide to prevent rats and cockroaches from causing damage to karaoke machines, and a device to release the pesticide. Most recently, WIPO reported that he has patented a pot to electrolyze water for use in washing, cleaning, and disinfecting, without using any soap or chemicals. (Ref: TIME, 23rd August 1999. Daisuke Inoue. Also refer to: Sydney Morning Herald, 13th January 2003. Japanese inventor loses patent to songbox. Finally, refer also to: WIPO Magazine, February 2009. The Father of Karaoke.)

Doner Kebab -- German Street Food

Can food be patented?

Mahmut Aygun, a Turkish immigrant to Germany, famously invented the doner kebab but died in January 2009 without profiting from his invention. In 1971, while working at the "City Imbiss" snack shop in West Berlin, he was inspired to combine pieces of meat, roasted in a rotating spit, with pita bread, and dress it up with vegetables and yoghurt sauce. Kebab is traditionally served with rice, but Mahmut was inspired to package kebab so that it could be consumed by customers as they walked home in the wee hours of the morning. Pita bread was the obvious solution. Doner kebab is a favourite of pub goers -- after their drinking sessions. (Source: The Local (German newspaper), 22nd January 2009. Inventor of the doner kebab dies. Also at The Telegraph (UK newspaper), 20th January 2009. The man who invented the doner kebab has died. And also at: BBC UK, 21st January 2009. How unhealthy is a doner kebab?)

A well written article, on whether food (and recipes) can be protected by intellectual property, is available at Food & Wine's website. (Ref: Food & Wine, New Era of the Recipe Burglar. By Pete Wells. Accessed 17th March 2010. One article referencing this article dates it to the November 2006 edition of Food & Wine.) The article mentioned an edible paper invented by chef Homaro Cantu. It touched on copycat chefs, who replicate menus from other (inventive) restaurants. It also quoted Steven Shaw, a former lawyer and co-founder of eGullet, a website for the culinary arts.

Shaw, a reformed lawyer, learned in law school that recipes can’t be copyrighted. "Then one day I was sitting there," he says, "and I thought, Why not? It doesn’t make any sense. The assumption is that a list of ingredients is like a formula, as opposed to literature or art or craft. But I think serious recipes really are a form of literary craftsmanship. You can copyright the world’s worst photograph, but you can’t copyright a recipe, or its expression as food? That’s absurd!"

Mr Homaro Cantu's invention, the edible paper, centers around the idea that edible items (called the "carrier element") can be manufactured to simulate the taste of a dish, or a food, by incorporating the taste elements in the food (called the "information element"). In the discussion of the prior art, some of the advantages of the invention were identified as: allowing consumers to taste the food without actually preparing the food; allowing consumers to taste food that they would not be able to taste normally (for religious or health reasons, or because of general unavailability); and allowing food flavours to be introduced (without preparation of food) through insertion in magazines, direct mail, etc. (Ref: US Patent #7,307,249. Title: "System and methods for preparing substitute food items".)

For further reading on food and recipes, and how they relate to intellectual property:

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