A number of people have commented about a recent story on Andre Geim, the inventor of graphene and new Nobel Laureate in physics, and his decision to not pursue a patent. One widely read recent tweet linked to a discussion on Slashdot that allegedly “Puts the lie to the claim that patents help small inventors.” The Slashdot page begins with an observation about why Dr. Geim didn’t patent graphene. Turns out he almost did, but chose not to after a conversation with someone from a big multinational company that could become a major user of graphene in the future. Here’s the content that supposedly shows why patents don’t help small business owners and lone inventors against the big boys of industry:
“As we discussed on Tuesday, Andre Geim won this year’s Nobel prize in physics for graphene, but he never patented it. In an interview with Nature News, he explains why: ‘We considered patenting; we prepared a patent and it was nearly filed. Then I had an interaction with a big, multinational electronics company. I approached a guy at a conference and said, “We’ve got this patent coming up, would you be interested in sponsoring it over the years?” It’s quite expensive to keep a patent alive for 20 years. The guy told me, “We are looking at graphene, and it might have a future in the long term. If after ten years we find it’s really as good as it promises, we will put a hundred patent lawyers on it to write a hundred patents a day, and you will spend the rest of your life, and the gross domestic product of your little island, suing us.” That’s a direct quote.'”
While some people, including some in the anti-patent community, see this as a self-evident case for the problem with patents, it’s actually just the opposite, in my opinion.
Look at the story again. A brilliant inventor on the verge of filing a foundational patent for a major breakthrough in technology approaches a large corporation who might benefit from the technology. The company learns that the inventor is about to file a patent. A valid patent would mean that the company would have to pay royalties for the invention, perhaps very expensive royalties. If no patent is filed, the company can use the technology for free and develop its own patents without having to cross-license or worry about what Andre Geim owns. Hmm, which would be better: paying a lot, or paying nothing? Having to work with an inventor or tech transfer office or new patent owner who may end up thinking an invention is worth billions, or having the whole thing pretty much gratis? Tough call, but I think the corporate leader was quick to recognize the advantages to nipping the patent threat in the bud. How could he talk the inventor out of a patent? What negotiating tactic to deploy? ah, how about the Hindenburg? That’s where you explain to the other party that their intended course of action would be a flaming disaster, with burning bodies falling out of the sky–oh, the humanity!–resulting in the adversary becoming toast themselves.
The Hindenberg it is. The corporate leader then explains that IF Geim is so foolish, so greedy, so inhumane as to file a patent, disastrous suffering will follow and he’ll be burned. “100 patents a day!” Overwhelming force! You’ll go into debt suing us for nothing! You’ll be toast, baby. One big flaming Hindenburg crashing into the ground.
All bluff and bluster. But the intimidation and scare tactics work. “OK, OK, I won’t file my patent. Sorry for even thinking about that. Now I see that patents don’t help the little guy, Mr. Big. Here, take what I’ve got for free.”
Patents are the great equalizer. It’s what gives lone inventors a fighting chance against the big corporation that wants to take what they’ve got for free. It’s not easy and may not work, but with patents you’ve got a chance and corporations know it. Good ones respect that and will work with out. Others will try to take what you’ve got anyway, or better yet if they can, talk you out of pursuing a patent. Without one, you’ve already surrendered. You might as well throw the keys of your car to any passing stranger and hope they will pay you someday after they drive away.
The story isn’t about why patents don’t help the little guy. In fact, I think it’s about how much some big corporations despise and loathe patents in the hands of little guys. So much so that they would make outrageous statements to trick a brilliant scientists into NOT doing the one thing that could have helped him most: filing a patent. Instead, he handed them his inventions for free. Score one for the big guys.