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Unprompted: Cornering the Market 

There are many stories about backyard inventors who came up with something good enough to prompt a big company to steal it.

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A hundred years ago Nikola Tesla started fixing things that weren’t broken. He was probably a geek, though the term wasn’t yet invented. I’d tell you more about Mr. Tesla but you probably don’t care or you would have looked him up by now.

Rube Goldberg, on the other hand, you’ve heard of. Goldberg is famous, not because he won a Pulitzer Prize as a cartoonist, which he did, but for sponsoring a competition for inventors to invent crazy things. The geek squad was in full swing.

I got my first patent in 1990 and another one two years later. It was for me a big deal, a little plastic insert that was used to join picture-frame corners. It’s called the Thumbnail, and it’s still out there selling by the millions.

I learned a lot about patents along the way. For one thing, I learned that a patent often is useless. It doesn’t keep someone from stealing your idea. If they steal it, the patent office really doesn’t care. It’s up to you to defend it. That means you must hire lawyers, go to court, and prepare to spend years and fortunes to protect your little thing, whatever it is.

There are many stories about backyard inventors who came up with something good enough to prompt a big company to steal it. The inventor can’t afford to fight the big company, and the big company knows that. So like a thief in the night, it steals the little thing. The guy is left in his backyard, playing with his dog.

I was able to sell my invention to a big company that easily could afford to protect it. We made a deal, the big company began making and selling my Thumbnails and sending me quarterly checks. Gene was happy. I used to joke that it was inconvenient, running to the bank every three months, I wanted automatic deposit. Ha. But as they say, all good things must come to an end.

One day another big company, in the same business, made a little thing almost identical to mine and went about selling it. I called on my big company to come to the rescue and punish the bad guys. They looked at the situation and said … nah. No? Why not? Turns out that although my company felt confident it could win the case, it simply wasn’t worth the cost to fight it. I was stunned! Have they no pride?!

Well my income from Thumbnail began to decline, and after the 20-year contract was up, it stopped altogether. The little thing, my plastic insert, my Thumbnail, still sells all over the world. But so does the similar one made by the company that ripped me off. Seems there are enough corners for everyone, and because everything was put in place years ago, and making Thumbnails is simply a matter of pushing a button, the Thumbnails that are about the size of an aspirin continue to sell like crazy. Like a cheap generic drug copied from a really expensive one.

But hark — I bear glad tidings of great news. I have another invention that will hit the market next year. This one is much more complicated and expensive to produce. I’ve worked on it for years at great expense, and now I’ve got it. I asked the chief executive of the company that will sell my new thing how he will deal with anyone who tries to copy it — and whether he’d underwrite a patent on it.

He doesn’t play that game. Patents, he said, are virtually useless and always expensive. They would drive up the cost of the thing. Then, he said, if they want to steal it — let them. But they won’t because they can’t make any money on it. When they see how low our price is, they won’t bother.

Sorry lawyers. We’re cutting you out of this deal.

If, on the other hand, if I invent something really wonderful, like a cure for something we can’t cure, a perpetual motion machine, or an anti-stupid pill, I will defend it with everything I’ve got.

By the way, the George Foreman Grill is great, but I’ll bet you a hamburger that Foreman didn’t invent it. S

Gene Cox is an author and inventor, who retired from a 35-year career as a television anchor in Richmond. Connect with him at letters@styleweekly.com, or on Twitter at genecoxrva.

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