Young entrepreneurs always tell me “I want to get a patent on my formula so no one can copy me”. To which I reply, “if your idea is any good they can and will copy you and your patent will teach them exactly how to make it”. As the blood drains away from their faces, I await the next question. If it doesn’t come I fill in the dead air with, “but the patent does give you the right to sue them and expect to spend about $1 million a lawsuit to do so”. Now I have to catch them before they fall down.
Before the hate mail starts coming from patent lawyers, there are many examples where patents are useful. For inventors who want to sell their technology or license it, they can be invaluable. For organizations with deep pockets and the resources to fight copycats, they are a must. But before applying for a patent, there are a lot of factors that need to be considered.
For young entrepreneurs who really want a patent, they need to prove their idea is novel and unexpected. This can be a big hurdle. The amount of so-called “prior art” in the world today is staggering. Finding it alone can be difficult. But my advice is to never have a patent written until the prior publications have been thoroughly looked at. Any one of these can trip you up at the patent examiner’s office. And if you pay good money to have someone write the patent, you may be sadly disappointed to find countless patents or papers already published on what you have just “invented”.
Further, we are seeing the concept of “open science”. This is where scientists are no longer concerned about patents or secrecy but openly share their ideas. It’s a wonderful idea in theory, but I’m having trouble squaring the circle when it comes to the financial gain from inventions and the inherent nature of competitiveness among human beings. However, this idea might be very useful for countries like Canada where we have a shockingly small investment in Research and Development and we would be smart to collaborate with each other in order to compete on the world stage.
I always encourage entrepreneurs to invent, create businesses and employment. Whether or not a patent is part of the picture must be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis.