Tag Archives: patent

Q&A revisited: Really, How Do I Sell My Idea to a Big Company. Part 2.

Irony: This post from about a year ago explains why you can’t sell an idea to a large company, and recommends not even trying. And dozens of reader comments ask how to do exactly what the post itself says they shouldn’t even try. And I get more comments all the time, plus emails on my ask me form, asking how to sell the idea to the big company.

Pot of Gold shutterstock.com

So I give up: Please promise me you’ve read this post before you go on. Know what you’re up against. Don’t be naive. Selling an idea to a big company is a one-in-a-million shot. You are probably wasting your time. But if you insist, here are my suggestions.

Step 1: Develop idea ownership

  1. Drill down on whether or not your idea is patentable. Patents are for inventions, not ideas. You either consult an attorney or do the research yourself. It’s a tough subject because it’s not what you think it should be, it’s what the real world and the beaurocrats do. And having a patent isn’t enough; it has to be a good patent, that protects against work-arounds, and will hold up in court. And a patent is something you can own. And sell or license.
  2. If you can phrase your idea as a creative work then you can protect it with copyright. That’s for books, songs, recorded performances, software products, films, television shows, paintings, and so forth. That’s protection, and ownership, but it doesn’t mean you can prevent people from copying you. If it’s good, they will.
  3. The other way to own an idea is to build a company over it. We call this general are one of trade secrets. It’s like the classic secret sauce. You bottle it, sell it, and hope imitators can’t reproduce it. So you can approach that target big company as a business already selling something, instead of just an individual with an idea to sell. Yes, that takes work; but your odds of success are much better.
  4. It won’t hurt to periodically write your idea down on paper, describe it as best you can, and mail it to yourself by certified mail. Do that whenever the idea changes. If you do, then at some future date, if you’re in a dispute, you can open that registered and sealed mail in front of a judge to prove what your idea was when. But don’t trust this protection very much: having an idea first doesn’t mean you own it.

Step 2: Get an attorney you trust

You need an attorney. (Note: I’m not an attorney; I can’t give you legal advice; I’m sharing my non-attorney experience as a business owner). Although non-disclosure (NDA) and confidentiality agreements are slim protection against big companies, it’s still better to have them than not to have the protection they offer. And an attorney you trust.

Step 3: Approaching the big company

I have to admit, I can’t tell you how to do this; I’ve never heard of anybody doing it successfully.

In theory, companies have some system for managing these contacts. Visit their website, call their main phone lines, investigate and explore. I do know that companies vary widely in how they deal with suggestions. Some have web forms. Some have employees. Some have a wall that’s hard to penetrate. And maybe there’s some that sift through ideas with interest and respect.

Often, finding the right person to talk to within a big company is like a reverse telephone tree. You start calling phone numbers available. With each call you make, you ask who’s the right person to talk to. With each new person who puts you off, you ask for another suggestion.

Step 4: The great beyond

If you find yourself actually dealing with that big company, pitching your idea, wow, I’m impressed; and you’ve already done the impossible. I hope you have a good attorney. I hope you succeed. My advice is be extremely skeptical and extremely cautious.

Startups Beware: Patents are Like Umbrellas. False Confidence.

For startups, patents are nice to have, but not if you trust them to really protect you. In that they’re like umbrellas. Good protection in a drizzle. False confidence in a downpour.

I write that because I’ve read about 50 real startup business plans in the last two months, and I’ve gone through at least two dozen pitch presentations, and I think it needs to be said. patent pending

Patents are usually better than nothing. I like it when a startup has a patent portfolio already issued, but also promises to keep trade secrets very tight and has a budget for patent defense. I like it more when they have a letter from a patent attorney talking about coverage and defensibility of the patents.

I hate it when the startup says a patent has been applied for, or there is a provisional patent, and says (or implies) that therefore their business is defensible.

Having a patent doesn’t mean much anymore. A provisional patent, less. And having applied for a patent, even less. The world of high tech is littered with fallen companies that were smashed to bits by a large company getting around, or violating, their patents. It happens all the time.

Sometimes I feel better with a strong trade secrets policy, a fast ramp-up, and great marketing, which I think offer the best real protection against copycats.

I suspect that the patent system is broken. Some bad patents that should never have been issued feed the coffers of patent trolls. And good patents are hard to find, slow to get, and hard to enforce. Sure, they’re good to have. But don’t trust ’em.

(Hat Tip to Twitter simile contributors @pierzy, Joel Libava (@FranchiseKing), and Dan Ness)

(Image credit: istockphoto.com)

When Patents Are Patently Absurd

Is Paul Allen a patent troll now? The same Paul Allen that was Bill Gates’ partner in Microsoft? Paul Allen who is worth billions of dollars?

Oh no. Say it ain’t so.

Last week wired.com reported Paul Allen Files Patent Lawsuits Against Entire Web … Except Microsoft. Allen, Bill Gates’ original partner in Microsoft, and an extremely wealthy man, is suing nearly everybody who is anybody on the internet (“Google, Apple, Yahoo, Netflix, Facebook, AOL and eBay, among others”) because he has the patent. Wired said:

The four patents at issue allegedly cover basics of online commerce including recommending products to a user based on what they are currently looking at and allowing readers of a news story to see other stories based on the current one, while two others relate to showing other information on a web page such as news updates or stock quotes.

I am not one of those people who – quoting Joel Stein’s latest column in Time – “want everything to be free except what they happen to do to make a living.”

But I do think the patent system is broken. The system was unable to keep up with technology, so patents were issued that made no sense. And patent trolls take advantage.

Wikipedia defines patent troll:

a pejorative term used for a person or company that enforces its patents against one or more alleged infringers in a manner considered unduly aggressive or opportunistic, often with no intention to manufacture or market the patented invention.

Of course people should get to own their own work. If you invent something really useful, like a light bulb or a phonograph or a plane, or a disk drive or a new kind of scanner, you should get to make a ton of money with it.

But who issued these patents? Wasn’t this all fairly obvious? These are ideas, not inventions. And who the hell knows who was the first to have an idea? And do we reward the first to patent it, when it shouldn’t have been patented in the first place? That’s just dumb.

Disclosure: I’m biased. I’ve been close to two different stupid patent suits where somebody took obvious technology and connected it to some dumb old existing patent and sued. And it was cheaper to pay up than fight. So, business is business, the trolls won.

Also, I’m hoping Paul Allen is actually just intending to make a point. If I remember it right, amazon.com had a patent for one-click purchasing, and they brought it up, made their point, and then behaved like decent citizens (do I have that wrong? If so, please tell me.) And I think Compuserve had a claim on the GIF graphic format, and didn’t insist on pursuing it. Maybe that’s what’s happening here.

I hope so.

And I’d like to credit Read/Write Web and cartoonist Rob Cottingham for the cartoon here. It’s from Cartoon: So Sue Me on Read/Write Web.

(Image credit: from Read/Write Web: click here for that post.)