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Patents……………… August 17, 2011

Posted by reto wettach in entrepreneurship, innovative interfaces, legal, new technologies, physical interaction design.
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Working with an university and especially in the innovative area between hardware and software, we are having the discussion about patents on a regular base.

Not only I am the inventor of some patents, which originated from various research projects, but also some of my students are currenty filing patents for inventions they did.

I must honestly say that I am not sure about patents for “small people”:

As seen in the current acquisition behavior of Google, of course patents make sense in big business.

How relevant are patents for small companies or even for “projects” as we would call it in Berlin?

When your plan is to start a company with the goal of selling this company, then I would say a key patent makes sense: it adds value to the company and furthermore protects your invention from being copied by a competitor. However, I would recommend to think really hard about the patent and to make it essential for the entire product philosophy of the company – as my friends from ic! Berlin, who protected their screwless hinge, which is essential part of all their glasses…


(image source)

When you are planning to build a product and sell it and you think that a patent for this particular product is going to protect you, then I would be careful:
First of all, filing a patent is a lot of work and quite expensive. You might miss that money and time in the product development or in the distibution.
Secondly, as you are not allowed to go public before filing the patent, you will hit the market later than you could, which might actually be your only advantage.
Thirdly, even though it is possible to file patents in Physical Interaction Design (as most inventions are in between hardware and software), I am not sure whether such patents are strong: technically most of these inventions are reconfigurations of existing technologies and I guess that it will be difficult to prevent others doing similar things as your patent might not cover all implementations of your idea.
Speaking of preventing others doing similar things – in our area it might be difficult to fight for your patent:  if one of the large competitors is copying your idea, what will you do? Do you have enough recourses to fight a legal war against highly paid advocates? Are you sure that you will win this war? And are sure that winning this war will be relevant for the sales of your product (maybe your competitor is targeting other audiences or the market for the product is anyway only temporary due to the high pace of innovation in our domain)?

So, my recommendation would be to start selling the product as soon as possible. Nobody else will be able to patent your idea then because you went public, so there is no danger from that side. And the earlier you start, the more chances are that you or your company will become the top dog  for that domain!

Good luck!

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