Last week I made a quick trip away from my granola-crunching hometown and startup bubble that is Boulder, Colorado to the far-off and exotic land of Denver.
After I idiotically spent $18 for an hour and a half of parking, I found myself knocking on a nondescript door in a seemingly random stairwell that was wedged between two restaurants.
Once inside, I was greeted by a sharply-dressed man who was wearing dress shoes (strange for a Boulderite who is used to seeing CEOs wearing Vibram Fivefingers or sandals) who showed me into a youthful and optimistic feeling office. There were a couple nerf guns strewn about, a gigantic TV mounted to the wall, brightly painted walls, glass desk partitions, the works.
This was the office of a patent firm, whose primary goal is to help people bring their ideas into the world.
An Inventor’s Greatest Fear
In my experience, interacting with the “I-have-a-brilliant-idea” types – as well as being one myself – the one thought that seems to scare people like us into paralysis is that someone will steal our idea as soon as it leaves our mouth. After that, they’ll push us off the train and leave us to die on the side of the tracks. Today I want to address those fears, because they can be crippling to idea creation if one never looks at them straight in the eye.
First, let’s pick apart why we’re so worried about IP theft. My theory is that it comes from one aspect of our human nature. We’re all familiar with the horror stories about how someone sent their designs to a factory in China, and the next month their product was being sold for half the price with some other person’s logo stamped on it. Another popular story is how some evil company stole an independent inventor’s idea, patented it under their own name, then proceeded to sue the inventor for everything he/she was worth. While it’s possible that these things have indeed happened at some point in the past, I don’t think they happen nearly as often as they seem.
“But for every bad story out there, there could be ten success stories that you never hear about.”
My theory is this: we humans have evolved to look for danger.
From a survival standpoint, it’s more beneficial to look for the leopard up in the trees instead of the thousands of pretty birds singing above. In our modern world, we no longer have to worry about leopards, however our brains are still wired to scan for danger. As a result, we have a somewhat sick addiction to these horror stories. When you search online about inventing and patents, you’re immediately assaulted with people telling you to protect your idea at all costs because otherwise someone will steal it and take all of your profits. We point out dangers to each other, and we like being informed of danger, because that’s what ensures that the status quo will be maintained. However, what you don’t see happening are the many instances of when people never have a problem. Most of the time people won’t take the time to write, “Everything is going wonderfully!” It’s only when they get burned that they take the time to say anything. But for every bad story out there, there could be ten success stories that you never hear about.
Protecting Your Ideas
This fear is why the patent firm in Denver exists, and to be sure, they do serve a helpful purpose. There are absolutely cases in which it is necessary to protect your idea from competitors or malicious people. I think it’s important for all inventors to have an understanding of how to protect their ideas and I will be writing about the basic process for obtaining a patent soon. However first I will argue that there are many cases in which obtaining a patent (and spending a good chunk of change in the process) is largely unnecessary.
An Alternative Method
I’ve mentioned in another post that Adam Savage is one of my heroes. Last year, he spoke at the 2014 Makerfaire about his Ten Commandments of Making. His “Sixth Commandment” in particular talks about keeping secrets:
“Share your methods and knowledge and don’t make them a secret. Take lots of pictures and make notes. Make noise. You will forget key details unless you do. Recognize that no matter how esoteric the build or the process you’re working on, somebody somewhere is interested in the same thing and will benefit from your experience, no matter how young you are. Nobody has the monopoly on being you. No one can steal that. Don’t keep secrets!”
I propose that more inventors (who are simply makers with business in mind) should adapt this “Commandment” to their situation, solely for the opportunities it offers for developing ideas and allowing them to proliferate. While all of the risks we learn about do occur in rare instances, I would argue that the majority of people will encounter nothing but support when they release their ideas into the world.
More often than not, sharing an idea can turn it into something far more valuable than if it remains locked away inside one person’s head.
(feature image via Tangible Interactions)