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Sam Asano's Let's Invent: Before chasing a patent, do your research

March 16. 2014 3:34PM

LAST WEEK, I threw a splash of water on the idea of securing a patent at any cost. Especially when you belong to the 99 percent population, and aren't endowed with a large wad of cash, a $15,000 personal investment to try to apply for a patent isn't the smartest move.

Let's just take a breather, and reflect upon why applying for and succeeding to take a patent is so important for you. Many amateur inventors approach me via emails, letters and phone calls. One common thread throughout these inquiries is this question: "I have this fantastic idea (which will result in making millions for me), and I would like to take a patent before anybody comes out with the same idea. How do I go about it?"

Seldom do I get an inquiry that asks if taking a patent is at all necessary, and why. It seems that the idea of a patent is indelibly etched in the mind of inventors as MUST. And that failing to acquire a patent for an idea is equivalent of a failure as an inventor. Here are some typical conversations I have had with inventors:

Inventor: I would like you to help me apply for a patent.

Me: Before discussing details, are you prepared to pay upwards of $15,000 for a patent application process?

Inventor: Yes, I think I have saved that much money.

Me: Does your wife agree with you in spending that much amount to take a patent?

Inventor: Well, I kinda mentioned it to her, and she should be aware.

Me: Really? Did she say it is perfectly fine with her for you to vaporize that much money?

Inventor: No answer.

Me: Let me ask you this. What are you going to do with the patent if you could get one?

Inventor: Well, that's what I need to know. Do you think I could license it to someone who is in business?

I didn't make this up. This gentleman is about to throw away his (and his wife's) hard-earned savings of nearly $15,000 to get a patent. However, he doesn't have a clear idea what he would do with that patent once it becomes his. Furthermore, if a patent isn't granted, he would be still out of that much money, and he will be left with this hopeless feeling that he has failed as an inventor. This is a hopelessly unproductive venture.

Like I stated last week in this column, this inventor would question the car salesman at length about the car he is thinking of buying, and would test drive more than once. He would read the brochure, and become knowledgeable about various options.

Then he'd tackle pricing with vengeance. He'd go to the Internet, and list out the prices the dealer would pay, and tally them up. Then haggling will commence with earnest. He is a tiger in this battlefront. He is in control, and he is in his element.

Would he do anything similar to that when it comes to patent issues? Well,.. not quite. He would show up in front of an IP attorney, and submit himself to write a check for retainer. Never mind what he would do with the patent if he is lucky enough to be granted. And this starts a long process of paying his hard earned savings out to get a patent or two, which upon receiving he has no idea what to do with it.

Ever since I became a class B (clearly not the world class) inventor and received a few patents, I too became aware of this tremendous attraction inventors hold for patents. It must be like catnip to a cat. Like the illness I call "paragrela," inventors are so intensely interested in getting a patent but not on the actual business success of the invention.

I might have gone a bit extreme. However, I am right in observing that we amateur inventors consider patents to be almost a proof of "knighthood" and that should be stopped first before we analyze the true value of a patent if and when you get one.

Assuming that your invention is a valid solution for a problem — it solves a problem and works fine — the first step you have to take is to scour the Internet high and low to learn about the market your solution aims at.

The logic behind this pursuit is as follows:

We need to assess the size of the market your invention will be sold to. How does one do it? Well, follow me.

1) Internet Search:

Go to Google and search for items similar to yours. If this is a new invention that hasn't got its generic name, look for similar products or services. You are bound to find some on the Internet. It is highly unlikely that you are the only one in the world. Don't get discouraged. That's the way of us inventors.

Take detailed notes about what you see on the Internet about this specific device or services. If this is a hardware product, you are recommended to purchase one to try it. You will learn a treasure trove of knowledge about this type of devices similar to your invention. Again, do not hesitate to spend some small sum of money. It costs a fraction of what you'd end up paying for a patent application.

I suggest calling the people there who are carrying the product or manufacturing it, and ask some crucial questions without making them alarmed. Volume, popularity, price etc. You will not be able to get all the questions answered, but by repeating this type of survey once in a few months, you will pretty much profile the product sales and pricing information. (To be continued.)

Think energy-saving inventions

When one travels to European countries and Japan, a few striking differences hit your eyes and ears. Over there the concept of energy conservation — not consumption — is taken quite seriously. In a rather large country inn in Germany I had to walk a long straight corridor to get to my room late at night. The overhead lighting fixtures would turn on one by one as I walked toward my room, lighting only the area where I was walking. It is an eerie and bit scary experience as it reminded me of the old movie "The Shining."

However, I realized that the power saved for this inn must be substantial compared when the corridor is fully lit from end to end. When one comes back to America, all the large office buildings are lit in full glory deep in the night when nobody is working there. They are pretty, but we are paying the price.

Standing at a busy street corner in the downtown Tokyo, the line of cars waiting for the green light is is very quiet. Their motors are shut off. When green light comes on, suddenly these engines come back to life. The system widely used in Japan for cars sold in the domestic market achieves three major purposes. One is the straightforward reduction of fuel consumption, and second is the commensurate reduction in various emission products including CO, CO2, NOx and other harmful gasses. And the third: Noise reduction in the busy downtown.

The 99 percent inventors, please apply your thinking power to develop energy-saving devices and services.

Shintaro "Sam" Asano of New Castle, who speaks and writes English as a second language, was named by MIT in 2011 as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century who improved our life. He is a businessman and an inventor in the field of electronics and mechanical systems, who is credited as the original inventor of today's portable fax machine. He also developed a data tablet used in the retail point of sale to capture customer signatures when credit cards are used. Write to him at

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