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Patent problems: One inventor’s opinion


Let’s talk about patents. But first, a word of caution: I am a geek, not a lawyer. If you are seriously looking into patenting, get a lawyer.

Now that I got that off of my chest, I can go over the basics. A patent is a formal document given to protect the inventor’s rights to sell, produce or use his invention as he sees fit. Patents protect the inventor for 20 years. After that, the invention becomes public property.

In reality, the government owns everything. Since Canada owns all patents from the get-go, the government will give you the right to “its” patent for a couple of decades. If it didn’t do this, I am sure there would be fewer inventions because of the lack of incentive.

It helps me to think of patents in terms of real estate. If I purchase a piece of land, the province grants me a title. Is it final? Not if an old road exists, or if squatters have been on it for a long time. There can be many encumbrances.

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For example, I live on a 50-acre lot with many trees. We have never totally walked the border. It has swamp and holly vines that deter all except the boldest from trespassing. About 10 years ago, a new couple in town thanked Shirley and me for allowing them to live on our property. We had no idea that they lived on our land. They even had a rural mailbox, but we thought that they lived across the street. What rights do we have? Lucky for me, they moved out before I had to take action.”

Another example comes to mind. Late one night I was walking my two Rottweilers about 50 metres from my barn. There were campers unloading a pickup truck. I informed them that it was my property, and suggested that they leave. The campers said that they did not know anyone owned this property. All property is owned by someone.

I also partly own a small pond adjacent to our lot, but we can’t use it. There are far too many visitors who consider it public property.

The idea for this column came from my court work. I am sometimes an expert witness, and usually know both parties involved in the dispute over property rights and title (patent). Both parties often become emotional. Rather than having a reasonable negotiation, they spend millions to protect the illusion of ownership. A Chinese saying comes to mind: “When you seek vengeance, dig two graves.”

But let me offer some encouragement. It is truly the age for the individual inventor. From 1988 to 1997, 151 individuals were each awarded 70 or more utility patents from the United States Patent and Trademark Office. No, I am not on the list, nor will I ever be. I have 26 patents, and am too old to do any more.

Corporations are also prolific. IBM acquired 3,248 patents in 2004. In that same year, the United States government was only awarded 829 patents. People and corporations do well, and big top-down organizations do not do as well. I suspect the per capita rate of invention is inversely proportional to the organization’s size.

Many flaws exist in the patent system, but for now we must work within the system. Half of the world’s patents come from North America. If you are interested in doing your part and bumping up the number of patents, I remind you to first get an attorney. And be sure to get estimates of the costs associated with getting a patent. Second, learn how to communicate. Speak up for your rights and learn how to use PowerPoint as a tool, not a crutch.

This column was a tough, but necessary, one to write. We are in the midst of change and need to deal with the legal system as it exists. Changes are being sought by governments, but this will take time. It is my opinion that nothing of significance will happen to the patent system over the next five years. So, although I say this often, it is an important message: We must deal with the world the way that it is, and not the way we wished it was. Above all, keep inventing.


Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. E-mail him at morley@barn.org.