James Dyson Award too ‘open’ for comfort


The James Dyson Award 2012 is open for entries until 2 August. It’s run by the James Dyson Foundation (JDF), James Dyson’s charitable trust, and reflects his wish to ‘celebrate young, inventive problem solvers who are unafraid to question’.

Open to design or engineering students or recent graduates in 18 countries, the brief is simple: ‘Design something that solves a problem’. The prize is £10,000 to the winning individual or team, and £10,000 to the winner’s university department.

All good so far. James Dyson is a shining example to all inventors and designers, and his book Against The Odds is essential reading for every aspiring inventor (alongside our own A Better Mousetrap of course).

But one aspect of the Award causes us concern: the requirement for public, worldwide disclosure of all entries. This goes so much against the grain of standard advice to inventors, and indeed against the R&D practices of Dyson the company, that we wonder how the JDF can justify an insistence on disclosure.

Laying it all bare

The Terms & Conditions leave no room for argument. For example:

The JDF cannot receive entries in confidence. (3.8)

Entry to the JDA will take the form of a project profile uploaded to the JDA website, […] which should include sketches and images of models and prototypes demonstrating the research and development process (including testing and design for manufacture). (3.1)

Entrants are further encouraged to include hi res images, CAD renderings and YouTube videos of prototypes, demonstrations etc. All seven veils, it seems, should be cast summarily aside.

By entering the JDA, the entrant understands that the project submission (descriptions, images and videos) will be made publicly available and will be able to be shared by members of the general public across any and all media channels including the Internet. (3.6)

All projects should be available to the organizers for exhibition purposes, including 3-D models. (3.9)

The general public in participating countries will be able to browse the projects in their region […] Registered members of the general public may share project submissions across any and all media channels including the Internet. (4.2)

Are entrants warned about the dangers of unprotected disclosure? For example, that a publicly disclosed idea will be impossible to patent later? No, they’re not. On the subject of IP protection, this is basically all you get:

The JDA organisers are not responsible for obtaining or verifying any intellectual property rights relating to the project that has been entered. It is the responsibility of the entrant to secure protection for a project which is being entered before submission. (5.1)

This simply isn’t good enough. We’re reluctant to call the Award irresponsible, but what else should we call it? James Dyson understands better than most the importance of keeping R&D tightly under wraps so that future IP isn’t compromised and competitors don’t get a sniff of what you’re up to. Why, then, does the JDF take the view that for students, maximum disclosure is the way to go? Has it learned nothing from the master?

Last laugh?

They could at the very least have given more detailed advice about IP protection options for early-stage ideas and concepts. (Which ought to include new kid on the block Creative Barcode – a game-changer in IP protection if ever there was one.) To leave it entirely up to students to discover the consequences of disclosure and the costs – in all senses – of patenting is arguably failing in a duty of reasonable care.

The world’s design and engineering students may however be having the last laugh. The low number of 2012 projects received suggests that they’re staying away, so perhaps they’re more IP savvy than we and the JDF give them credit for. The opening date for the Award was 2 February, and at today’s count (12 June) only 19 projects have been uploaded. Of the 18 participating countries, Australia leads the field with four. Germany and Russia have three, Italy and New Zealand two. The UK and USA have one apiece. The rest are mostly zeros.

There are still nearly two months to go before the competition closes, so there could be a late rush of entries. But we somehow doubt it. We may be wrong but we’d like to think that eligible students and graduates have taken a look, heard the sound of alarm bells, and decided to give the Award a miss.

To prevent misunderstanding, we’re not saying that the James Dyson Award is a bad thing. On the contrary, it has the potential to be a very good thing. But we think it has taken a seriously wrong turn by requiring projects to be disclosed in such a full frontal way. The problem should be easy enough to fix, so let’s hope things are more sensibly organised in 2013.

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