Some patent thoughts

One of the things I did in my dissolute holiday was play Texas Hold’em with Dan Barry, among other people. The first thing in my inbox when I got back was an email from my advisor asking if I’d be willing to help someone with some patent advice. Among the first websites I visited when I got back was The Space Review, on which there is an article advising space entrepreneurs on patents, using Texas Hold’em as an example. Bizarre little chain of coincidences. Not being superstitious I’m not trying to figure out the deeper meaning, but it’s a little odd.

Anyway, on the topic of patents, the article by Sam Dinkin is pretty much exactly on target, but I thought I’d mention the advice I always give people thinking about patenting an idea. This is based on all of six month’s experience doing IP work, so it’s far from definitive, but my job would have been simpler had I known it, so here goes: The most important thing to understand about patents is that they aren’t about ideas or inventions, they are about lawsuits. The only utility of a patent is in a lawsuit or threat of a lawsuit. If your idea is unlikely to be picked up by someone else, a patent is unlikely to help. Given that the time when people are thinking about patenting an idea is right at the beginning of their business, the money and time invested will often pay off better elsewhere, such as in building a proof of concept demo. A patent can be useful in scaring away competition, but that cuts both ways – if you think you can build a genuinely better mousetrap but it infringes someone else’s IP, all may not be lost. After all, it’s about a lawsuit, and the patent holder doesn’t always win – there are some really lousy patents out there.

Anyway, I’m repeating a bit of what Sam Dinkin said, but hopefully the repetition isn’t wasted. If you have a good idea that might be patentable, go read his article, and then go read what Don Lancaster has to say on the subject. Also, check out the EFF’s Patent Busting Project for some examples of some of the egregious stuff that manages to get patented. EFF is trying to bring some sanity to the subject but they could certainly use some help.