And be sure to protect your best ideas
By Tiffany Norwood, Tech entrepreneur / Founder/ Tribetan / Co-founder, SimWin Sports
The First Time
You never forget the first time someone steals your idea. For me, it happened early. I was 19 when I filed for my first patent. At age 20, I was a CEO. By the time I turned 21, my patented invention had been stolen.
Along with co-inventor Philip Anthony, I had created a one-strap backpack. We called it the ToPAQ, for Tiffany Oliver / Philip Anthony. The Q was for Quality.
To us, it was personal and precious, and to protect it, we did everything right. We hired attorneys, filed for a patent, and then brought our invention to market. Our innovative backpack was sold in more than 50 retail outlets, including Spike Lee’s Joint in Brooklyn. We were cool.
Soon, one of the large backpack companies came to us – a household name. Like so many students, I was a customer of theirs. They wanted to buy our company. I wanted to sell our company. It was hard being a CEO and a senior at university. Three of the four co-founders wanted to sell; one did not. And unfortunately, according to our operating agreement, we needed unanimous consent.
The company that wanted to acquire us did not take “No” for an answer. In a very short time, they created their own one-strap backpack. We lacked the resources to fight or compete with them.
That experience taught me a few things: that it is important to take your imagination seriously; that a patent has no value if you can’t defend it; and that it is very easy for the market to know if you are able to defend it. It also taught me to be careful about unanimous consent.
That was the first time.
The Next Time
Soon I found myself on Wall Street, working in Mergers and Acquisitions. In investment banking, sleep is not part of the job description. Armed with a background in computer science, I started automating my job so I could get home before midnight. The program I wrote replicated my role as an analyst, processing and analyzing copious amounts of data on the commercial banking industry. It then handed off the results to another program that would generate recommendations on potential merger targets. Finally, the program automatically generated a report including all the data, insights, and recommendations (including graphics), and sent it to the printer.
In 1992, this program was quite innovative. It was almost as if I had invented fire. When the Managing Director finally asked how I was getting so much done so quickly, I told him it was a software program I created. Immediately a guy named Steve tried to claim ownership although he didn't even code. Eventually it became clear that it was my creation because I had embedded my authorship into the code. Steve was never reprimanded.
I started weighing my options. I knew more about intellectual property rights than the average 24-year old. I already had a patent. I was determined to do something bold to stand up for myself and my IP. A couple of days later, I met the Managing Director and gave him my two-week notice of resignation.
I said I wanted to do a proper hand-off of my projects. I asked him to let me know what his priorities were, and said I would make sure to get them all done before I left. “The software code, however, is my intellectual property,” I told him. “The ownership is mine. Like books and music, software is protected by Federal Copyright Law.” I added, “You can ask Steve for his code. Mine is going with me.”
That was the first time I licensed my code. I gave that company the right to use my software program solely for their own projects, but not to own it or sell it to others. Documentation and limited support came with the licensing agreement.
This program was used as part of the analysis and strategy of a major U.S. bank merger. I still have all of the code and documentation. I am very proud of it. But without IP rights, my creativity would have been stolen and exploited – again.
The Value of Imagination
At its foundation, innovation is imagination made real. That is why I founded Tribetan, an ed-tech company that teaches everyone to take their imagination seriously. In the post-pandemic world, we need to reimagine everything. We need more imagination, from more people, and we need it fast. And like anything in short supply, the value of imagination is at a premium. Now is not the time to discount innovation or IP.
I am an inventor-entrepreneur. I have done eight startups, predominantly in the tech space, and currently am the 2022 Entrepreneur of the Year for Cornell University. As much as anyone, I know how hard it is to turn imagination into reality. It includes a lot of suffering in the form of time, money and effort. It’s a lot of falling down and getting back up. It’s “Am I going to lose my home?”
To motivate people to take this leap of faith, it's important to say, “Hey Innovator, if you take a chance, you'll own the intellectual property. You'll be able to reap the benefits from your imagination for many years.”
Innovate the System
Although intellectual property is all about innovation and creativity, we rarely innovate the system itself.
The process of patenting an invention is long and expensive. For that reason, patent ownership often goes to the person or entity with the resources to file, rather than to the actual inventor. When that happens, the creator does not get credit for the invention (the “right to attribution”) and misses out on any financial gain.
In the case of our one-strap backpack, we had a patent, so we kept the right to attribution. But because we lacked the resources to defend the patent, we did not fully realize the financial gain of the invention.
Copyright is different. While patents protect an invention or process, copyright protects a piece of writing, music, or some other creative work. And unlike patents, copyright gives creators an automatic right of ownership as soon as the work is in a fixed form, such as printed manuscript.
The right of attribution and ownership is free. If you file with the Copyright Office to have your work formally recorded, the basic filing fee starts at just $45, a sum almost anyone can afford.
Why can't we do something similar for patents? For example, the detailed description and drawings, taken to a notary in fixed form and dated, could be the “priority date”: the first date on which a patent application is filed, which is important in determining whether later applications are classified as novel. Adding the description and diagrams to a blockchain could constitute a provisional patent.
Both options would be fast, requiring just days or even hours. The cost would be low, probably not more than a few hundred dollars. Like the copyright, the inventor would have the option to file and formally record with the patent authority if she choose to do so in the future.
What about disputes and penalties for violations? In addition to giving the creator the right to seek damages, copyright law imposes fines of up to $250,000 and potential prison time of up to five years. Patent law simply says that the inventor can seek “relief.”
The vagueness of the patent law leaves inventors vulnerable, especially small entrepreneurs. Years after my time on Wall Street, a multibillion-dollar company violated the license agreement of one of our software products. It was another David and Goliath situation. We sent a cease-and-desist order; they kept using the software.
Our patent was still pending, so we turned to our copyright protection. Based in D.C., I was able to personally call and visit the U.S. Copyright Office. We filed our fixed copy of the software, with our original priority date, and in less than a week, I had the certificate. We paid a filing fee of $65, plus an additional fee to expedite the process. We then did a simple calculation of the money they had made and saved with our software, which was in the millions, and gave it to our lawyers, who drafted a federal complaint and sent it to the company. In just a few months, the matter had been settled.
Throughout the experience, our patent was pending. Had we relied solely on the patent for protection, we would have lost our company.
Note to software developers: always print and date your code.
Use it or Lose It
Only 2% to 3% of patents ever make it to market, and only 1% to 5% of those products are successful. We should use the tools we have to encourage people not only to create, but also to release their creations into the public domain so that their inventions benefit society.
Returning to the backpack example, when our design patent was issued we were given 14 years to use it. During that period we also had to pay more fees. After that period, our protection was pretty much done. Patented inventions that are judged to be useful get 20 years from filing or 17 years from issue, whichever is longer. It can take a long time to build a company based on a patented product, so the usable period of the patent may be more like 10-15 years.
What if, instead, inventors were given 10 years to bring an invention to market? If they did, they would then get another 20 years during which the patent could be renewed twice as long as the invention was being used. That would create a built-in incentive to ensure that the invention benefited society. If the invention was never used, it would receive 10 years of patent protection, no more. If the patent was brought to market and used, the inventors would get a total 70 years of ownership.
Think that’s too long? For reference, copyright lasts the entire lifetime of the creator, plus 70 years after their death. For those worried about medical inventions, we could possibly have a separate process for life-saving inventions. Or maybe pharmaceutical companies wouldn't feel so much pressure to raise drug prices if they had 70 years to realize a return on their billions of dollars of development costs, instead of just 20.
Awareness of IP rights also matters. Because I filed for my first patent as a teenager and licensed my first software in my twenties, I had an above-average understanding of intellectual property rights, and the value of my imagination.
Not everyone understands those things, but they should. That is why I recently joined the board of directors for The Center of Intellectual Property Understanding and was the 2022 keynote speaker for IPAS, the Intellectual Property Awareness Summit.
I encourage anyone interested in IP rights to check out both of these websites for information on tutorials, workshops and other events. With a higher level of awareness, protection and incentives, we will see a new age of creativity that we haven’t seen for generations. And maybe someone will actually invent fire.
Hermione Granger is the true archetype of the creator, innovator, and inventor. Hermione is the goal, not the unicorn. The origin story of a unicorn is a rare sighting. The origin story of Hermione is being self-made. A few years ago, JK Rowling debuted a play called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This play was based on the characters as adults. And Hermione grew up to be …a black woman. For me, this reinforces that Hermione is meant to be all of us. The so-called muggles that are full of magic, creativity, innovation, and invention. In the spirit of “open innovation, '' I would like to share some of my intellectual property with a poem called “Hermione Rising.” And like everything of any substance it starts with the imagination.
I imagine a new way, a different way...
I Imagine a Better Way!
Something Disruptive and innovative,
Used and revered
Demanded and paid for
Why do we deny it (and discount it)
It is the source of all innovation
Einstein was theoretical
DaVinci an artist and a scientist
George WASHINGTON carver, no vision no hope
and Harriett had to imagine freedom before
she took the first step
I have a dream
-of traveling to space
-of curing cancer
-of starting companies
-of running for office
-of peace unity equality and equity
You get what I am saying
It is not about the how
It's about the why
the sense of purpose
No need to TEACH imagination
Just endorse it
And with grace give space for it
It's not to be packed away
It should be on display
In schools, in offices,
a priority among the others
For tinkering, sketching,
Making and for play
of someone else's prior imagination
Is not the way
Give space to expand,
and extend a concept
Through empathy and understanding
Through diversity and collaboration
An embrace for imagination
in the case of them all
The more minds that imagine together,
the more innovation blossoms
The more diverse these minds
the taller it grows
And if It's fueled with love and understanding
it thrives and soars
We are 7 billion strong
Brothers and Sisters
We can do anything
Unless we fight each other
Go Human or Go Home
To my fellow Daydreamers,
You are our future game changers
Your place is at the top of the class
Take out your wand
And cast the spell of
"I Want That"
it is going to be messy
REALITY IS ALWAYS MESSY
Practice, Rehearse, Experiment, Try!
screw up and then rise up
Wield the magic of hope and faith
and know that the world may attack your genius now,
but love you for it later
Hermione is Rising
and her power is limitless
And by God's grace, so is yours
I pray you too will use it for the greater good.
Until then, Tiffany
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