Sometimes a mousetrap isn’t better, it’s just Byzantine
By Ron Reardon
The audience included USPTO officials, innovators, product developers, entrepreneurs and wannabe inventors.
After some introductory remarks, I turned my presentation to whether a patent guarantees market success. I compared the following types of inventions: (1) Patented, but not marketable; (2) Marketable, but not patented; and (3) Patented and marketable.
- Patented, but not marketable
Because patent examiners focus on the patentability of claims and not the marketability of the claimed invention, my poster child for an invention that is patented but does not have a prayer for even a smidgen of market success is Patent No. 5,564,221, “Animal Trap Entrance Device”, aka a mousetrap.
The oft repeated statement “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” has never had an iota of truth, as novice inventors waiting for industry titans to discover their brilliance soon discover. For the sake of argument, most would agree that 5,564,221 is decidedly not a better mousetrap.
In fact, it would take a very intelligent, ambitious and highly skilled mouse to actually gain entrance to the delectable cheese, only to find that it is hopelessly trapped. While the disclosed trap obeys the laws of physics and complied with the requirements of patentability, Patent No. 5,564,221 was never commercialized (although it may have possibilities as a gag gift or a video game).
- Marketable, but not patented
This category has two enduring bestsellers – Crayola Crayons and Silly Putty. Neither of these products were patented, although there have been subsequent utility and design patents issued to the Crayola Company in recent years. Both of these products continue to enrich our economy, as well as bring joy and spur creativity.
You need to be careful when your invention falls in this category. Without a patent you won’t be able to exclude others from developing the same product. But there may be reasons for marketing of your invention in this situation nonetheless.
Namely if you have already committed the four deadly sins that disqualify you for getting a patent – over one year ago you either sold the claimed invention, tried to sell it, used it in public or disclosed how to make and use it.
- Patented and marketable.
Consider Patent No. 2,717,437, “Velvet Type Fabric and Method of Producing Same,” aka as Velcro. While this patent expired long ago, its trademark, name recognition and market innovation keeps this juggernaut alive – plus there have been hundreds of follow-on patents issued to the company. The contributions to our economy and our lifestyle by this product are enormous.
This final category – patented and marketable – is the holy-grail for inventors. With this formula you have the best of both worlds: Exclusivity or a monopoly on your idea and consumer demand.
What do the inventions that will make you a successful inventor have in common? Thomas Edison said it best: “Anything that won’t sell, I don’t want to invent. Its sale is proof of utility, and utility is success.”
In gauging market success, ask yourself a series of questions. Does your product have a “wow” factor? Is your product unique? Is it for the mass market? Does it solve a problem? Is it priced right? Is it easily explained?
Be honest with yourself. If your invention is only 10% better than the current alternative, you should consider inventing something else – this is why the DVD player rocketed to success exponentially faster than the VCR. Other considerations include:
Moreover, don’t delude yourself into thinking success is instantaneous. If it were everyone would be a rich inventor. It can take years to get a patent. And it can take years to be an overnight success.
Editor’s note: This article appears in the February 2011 print edition.
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