After studying patent law and patenting process for about a year one would expect people to think that this the final fate of an invention, and an inventor gets the reward deserved by getting a patent. But an inventor was heard saying that ““An invention can be so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor”. This gentleman though had an invention that could have turned to a gold mine for him instantly, but he failed to recognize the fact and was carried away by the conception that its only he who should use the invention to make money, that is he didn’t bother to license his invention to others in order to gain commercial benefits.
The incident I am talking about took place long ago in South California in the year 1794. This case of an inventor called Eli Whitney and one of his great innovations- The cotton Gin. He came to his invention basically by accident. He was invited to become a tutor for a wealthy South Carolina plantation owner. On his arrival in Savannah, he was casually confronted with a major problem of that period.
The green cotton they were raising had short strands with seeds firmly attached to the fiber. The fiber was valuable but only without the seeds. All plantation owners and major cotton producers faced a major, insolvable problem. The cotton plant was easy to grow and easy to harvest but the fiber was difficult to separate from the seeds. Whitney – who had never seen cotton in his life – was captivated by the land owners request to try to come with something innovative. Whitney eventually came with what is known as a “gin”. The gin was easy to make and caused the southern agricultural states to see its fortune changing overnight to become one of the richest areas in the whole country.
Whitney got his patent in 1794. What Whitney and his former host and now commercial benefactor, Miller, did not realize at the time was that smart licensing of a good invention brings a lot more gain than trying to own all the cotton gins, something that is very familiar in our times, but then again we have learned the advantages of an “open innovation”. Whitney and Miller’s charged high prices for anyone who wanted to use the invention. Because of the too high a price, competing cottoners copied Whitney’s product. Whitney found out the hard way that those who invent something valuable are destined to a life in court, particularly when the patent laws are weak and vague. Whitney had to fight in court to get his patent validated, and this led him to say: “An invention can be so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor”. He found out the hard way that marketing and licensing the patent is as valuable to an invention as the invention itself.
The greatest lesson which comes out of this incident is that a good patent of a great innovation does not always lad to success. A patent is just the beginning of what is called spinning money out of the invention. A smart move can turn your patent to an asset and a not so smart one into a white elephant.
This article has been reported from a blog posted on IPEG.