Maybe it’s time for patent attorneys and inventors to start understanding each other more. As the cost of patenting comes increasingly under the spotlight – the latest to join the fray is James Dyson – some patent attorneys are expressing views about inventors that seem to belong to Marie Antoinette’s ‘let them eat cake’ school of thought. They accuse private inventors of wanting everything to be free, in tones implying that inventors and benefits scroungers might share a gene or two.
I’ve heard this before over the years, and my first reaction is always to think, ‘You’re a bit out of touch, mate’. I’d say it if I met them, but most of the patent attorneys I actually meet are sympathetic to inventors. That though is probably because I tend only to meet them at inventors’ clubs or similar invention-related events, so the sample will be skewed. I can only hope that the sympathetic PAs outnumber the hard liners, but has anyone ever asked for a show of hands?
What private inventors want and need is patents and IP services that are not free, but affordable and good value for money. That isn’t unreasonable when most inventors have to finance their projects on the flimsiest of shoestrings. If they don’t have the £150 or more an hour that patent attorneys typically charge, it isn’t because they’re tight-fisted, it’s because it will devastate an already meagre budget. Paying for a patent or its renewal tips many inventors into genuine hardship – which is why it’s important to explore every other means of protecting and exploiting an invention before considering a patent.
But there are undeniably faults on the other side of the fence. Patent attorneys have told us that inventors often don’t pay their bills or have to be chased hard. They’re often difficult to deal with because they’re not familiar with IP and – inexcusably – haven’t made any effort to learn even the basics. Often too, they mistakenly assume that their patent attorney is also a business adviser who will help make them a millionaire. This misreading of the relationship may arise because a patent attorney is often the first professional an inventor meets who knows something about invention, which is a sad reflection on the lack of specialist invention advisers out in the field.
So there are lessons to learn on both sides. Patent attorneys need to recognise that nearly all private inventors have to operate within very tight budgets and so above all else need advice about affordable or cost-saving IP strategies, one of which might be to dispense with a patent. That might not be ideal but if the ideal is unaffordable, there’s all the more need for an attorney’s expertise.
For their part, inventors need to do as much homework as possible before going near a patent attorney. That means researching all forms of IP, forming a view on what sort of IP strategy might work for their invention, finding out what a patent attorney can and can’t be expected to do, and at the outset discussing the most efficient and cost-effective way of working together.
At the moment, the anecdotal evidence we get splits roughly fifty-fifty between good and bad inventor/attorney experiences. That seems to suggest plenty of room for improvement, perhaps on both sides.