Feb
16

When Inventions Are Ahead of Their Time, Long-Term IP Strategy Becomes Essential

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As an inventor and US patent agent, one of my painful experiences in the pursuit of patents at past employers and on my own has been unexpected encounters with prior art. Even after serious and careful searching, one may later find that someone else pursued a very similar idea many years ago. Like the Good Book says, there is no truly novel thing under the sun, though there may be many nonobvious improvements thereof.

A great example of this is the iPod, an invention and innovation that may have been anticipated to some degree in 1979. “Suspiciously Prescient Man Files Patent for iPod-Like Device in 1979” is Dan Nosowitz’s recent post at Gizmodo pointing out how an old, expired patent hinted at several aspects of the iPod. Of course, music players and MP3s were already around when the iPod came out, but the 1979 data is rather surprising. That patent may have had some great concepts, but like many inventive concepts, it may have been too early to be practical and successful. Timing is so important for success in innovation: is the market ready, is the supply chain available, is there an ecosystem that can be tapped, can the concept stick and resonate with other innovations, and can it be offered economically?

Consideration of the market roadmap for a prospective innovation can be critical for success. Many times success requires adjusting the business model to find the resonances that can add energy to the offering and to find ways to present the innovation in a disruptive manner rather than going head-on against established incumbents. Innovation is often more about the business model and marketing plan than it is about the technology itself. The iTunes model was part of what made the iPod a winner. 1979 was the wrong digital era for that invention. (A hat tip to RobMcNealy on Twitter for a mention of the Gizmodo article.)

Another example of an invention ahead of its time was the photophone of Alexander Graham Bell. About.com’s article on Mr. Bell explains:

Among one of his first innovations after the telephone was the “photophone,” a device that enabled sound to be transmitted on a beam of light. Bell and his assistant, Charles Sumner Tainter, developed the photophone using a sensitive selenium crystal and a mirror that would vibrate in response to a sound. In 1881, they successfully sent a photophone message over 200 yards from one building to another. Bell regarded the photophone as “the greatest invention I have ever made; greater than the telephone.” Alexander Graham Bell’s invention reveals the principle upon which today’s laser and fiber optic communication systems are founded, though it would take the development of several modern technologies to realize it fully.

One of the challenges with visionary inventions is obtaining suitable intellectualy property. Patents expire in 20 years from the filiing date, which may not be enough to do any good when a visionary concept finally becomes economically viable. The IP estate must be developed with a broad time frame in mind and should include elements that last longer than patents such as trademarks, as well as a series of patent applications over time that reflect ongoing innovation and competitive awareness. Strategy and vision in the IP can be almost as important as the vision of the invention itself.

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