Protecting products with continued innovation, not patents
What's the best way to protect a product? Most people would answer “patents,” but there is another: continued innovation.
Consumers don't buy products because they are patented; they purchase them because they're better, or perceived to be. Your company can leave competitors in the dust without patents by introducing improvements so often that other companies can't keep up; their products are what you offered months or years ago; you always have something better, so customers prefer your products. Thus continued innovation is an ideal intellectual property moat.
Protecting and defending intellectual property with patents slows innovation and drains resources that could be used to catalyze continued breakthroughs: what the customer wants, not a patent number that often means little or nothing. Example: Despite the several patent numbers emblazoned on it, my Hoover vacuum is an exasperating piece of junk; its primary value is that it taught me:
- To never buy a Hoover again.
- That James Dyson was correct when he said, “As the old proverb goes: ‘There is always a man who can make something a little more cheaply and a little less well. And people who think only of price are that man's rightful prey’.”
Evidently quality means so little to Hoover they built a vacuum with cheap components, such as its switch that lasted a few weeks. Who cares about patents when it won't turn on?
I work as an independent contractor (hint, hint: thus I am available to other companies) for a corporation that loves patents and my creativity. While I genuinely appreciate them and their brainiac employees, I am frustrated by how long it takes to protect my ideas and those from other inventors.
In my case, they know of less than 1% of my ideas. I have a huge backlog of inventions and endless current ones. In the time it takes me to prototype and submit one invention, I always have several more, and sometimes even hundreds more.
Do the math: That means they'll never get more than a tiny fraction of my ideas. That's not good for me, them, or the billions of people I could help with my inventions. It's not good for the economy, either. That's why I am excited about a brilliant idea that President Obama signed into law: the JOBS Act.
As I discussed in the Notes section of that article, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell said there are plenty of Steve Jobses. He's correct, but our system is not ideally tuned to maximally tap their brilliance. The JOBS Act will help change that by permitting startups to obtain startup capital from online investors.
Too many companies move at a snail's pace. We need nimble companies that seize good ideas and turn them into products long before a patent is issued. By that time, there's often an even better way to do it. As Thomas Edison said, “There's a way to do it better — find it.”
Customers are excited by innovation, not patents. That excitement makes them spend. Innovation and spending to get it drive the economy, putting more people back to work. That's what we need.
UPDATE: Immediately after writing this article, I decided to challenge myself by taking a stagnant old product, a bolt, and trying to improve it. In less than a minute I came up with one minor and one major improvement. My point? If bolts can be improved, anything can.
- What we need to invent is a better way to protect inventions (some of which need protection). I have some ideas, but I'd love to hear yours. If you have an interesting idea, please contact me.
- Judge slams Apple, Google for using lawsuits as ‘a business strategy’ that has ‘no end’