Saturday, June 03, 2006

I Received a U.S. Patent and Didn't Know It

Last week one of my company's EVPs sent me a one-line email saying "What we found the other day...", with a PDF attachment. I thought he might be passing along some competitive information, maybe even a joke, but what was in the attachment took me totally by surprise: a U.S. patent with the inventors listed as "Window Manageret. al."

I sat there staring at my name on a U.S. patent. I knew nothing about this. I read through the patent, and quickly figured out what happened....


Internet Boom - Spring 2000

"Look, I know we're a start-up and the company needs patents, but I'm a marketing guy"

The CEO nodded quickly. He always did that, acting as if he agreed with you even if he disagreed with you. "Look, WM, you are one of the best marketing guys I know, and that is why I know I can rely on you to file patents. In fact, I am putting it in your MBOs."

"Great. What in the hell can I invent?"

The CEO's eyes seem to grow, taking on a hypnotic look like Kaa from The Jungle Book. As I found myself being sucked into his Jedi Mind Trick, his speech started to echo "There are business process patents being filed and approved every day. I want you to work on one of those."

I walked out of his office in a zombie-like trance, his words reverberating in my mind. I thought "Yeah, a business process patent. I can invent one of those!"

I went to the VP of Marketing's office, finding him in the same state I was, having been briefed by the CEO before me. The two of us started talking simultaneously, throwing concepts on the whiteboard. Ideas were created, discussed, modified, tossed and created again. We were in a reality distortion field created by the CEO, and anything seemed possible.

We went for hours, peering into the future at what the internet, digital imaging, wireless networking and mass storage would allow. And then we had it. We figured out what all these technologies would enable: wireless sharing of photos, allowing people to upload their pictures taken from a wireless camera or cellphone to a website, where the pictures could be shared and printed. It was a bold prediction, and nothing like it was out there.

We summarized our findings and we started working with outside counsel to file a patent. The CEO - because he was the CEO - added his name as one of the inventors.

About a year later we got a response from the patent office, asking questions. The lawyer explained that this was part of the process, and that it would take more time (and money) to move the patent filing past this point. We pushed it forward.


Internet Bust - April 2002

I saw it coming. I saw it coming for months. The companies with nothing behind them died first - pets.com, drkoop.com, all those worthless dot coms. I thought - or hoped - that would be the end of it, but it was only the beginning.

Without the high-flying dot coms driving server, router, and broadband sales, the systems companies were next. Cisco and Sun came crashing down. With demand drying up from the systems companies, the semiconductor companies came next, and Intel, TI and all the rest of the components companies nosedived.

It became impossible for a tech start-up to raise capital in this type of environment. Add the fact that 9-11 put a stop to all VC funding for a few months, and it meant that my company was running out of money and wasn't going to get more. I knew the end was near.

So when the lawyer informed me that the patent was still moving forward, but needed more funding to push it along, I knew that it wasn't going to get it. My company was cutting costs left and right, and my patent was going to die on the vine.


Internet Bust - June 2002

Herr Steiner smiled at himself as his Lufthansa flight took off from LAX. He just finished buying the assets of a little, bankrupt U.S. technology company for a song. Little start-ups were dying in the U.S. left and right, and smart people like him knew how to come in and pick up the assets for pennies on the dollar. Yes, he got a bunch of worthless desks and PCs, but he got what he was really after: the technology, several designs, plus a handful of unapproved patent applications. The company had let them linger, probably thinking they were dead, but he would have his U.S. lawyer get them revived and going again. It only took some funding. If he were lucky, a couple of them could be turned into actual U.S. patents in a few years.


Present Day

So, yes, I, along with my former VP and CEO, are listed as inventors of a business process patent, with yours truly listed as the lead inventor. The bad news is that it is owned by a European company and I have absolutely no rights to it. There are actual businesses making money doing the things outlined in the patent, but I think the chances of this company doing any sort of enforcement on it are slim to none.

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