...getting in a spin over patents
The inventor of a popular toy has revealed that she has not made a single penny from the surge in popularity of products based on her original design, as she could not afford to renew the patent for the so-called ‘fidget spinner’ back in 2005.
It’s not the first time that an inventor’s genius has gone without fiscal reward, as many popular products previously subject to patent are now in the public domain as patent holders have not been renewed by their owners,
Explaining some of the complexities of patent law, Luke Corcoran – Commercial Law Solicitor – outlines some other examples of inventors missing out on the popularity of their products after they did not renew patents.
Consisting of a simple ball bearing that sits in a three pronged plastic device, fidget spinners have taken playgrounds around the world by storm in the last few weeks.
The toy’s inventor, Catherine Hettinger, first made a prototype back in the 1990s when a medical condition made it difficult to play with her daughter.
After developing the product further she flew to Washington DC and secured a patent on the design in 1997.
Despite toy manufacturing giant Hasbro testing the patented design they decided not to proceed and Catherine did not see any commercial success in the product’s initial lifespan.
In 2005 the patent needed to be renewed, but the US inventor could not afford the $400 (£310) renewal fee and surrendered the patent.
This meant that the design was in the public domain and with the toy now taking off and becoming an international phenomenon any companies manufacturing products based on the original design can do so without offering any funds to the inventor.
Despite missing out on what could have been a large fortune from the royalties from manufacturers that are currently selling fidget spinners in their thousands, Catherine told The Guardian that she is not bitter over her lost opportunity:
“Several people have asked me: ‘Aren’t you really mad?’ But for me I’m just pleased that something I designed is something that people understand and really works for them.”
Missing Out On Patents
Catherine Hettinger is not the only inventor to have missed out on a fortune from a patent mishap; history is full of inventors that struggle financially while their designs make others rich.
In 2008 Apple credited a British man, Kane Kramer, as being the man who invented the iPod. In 1979 the inventor sketched out a design for a portable digital music player, which he held a patent for until 1988.
After a split in the company, Kane set up to develop the idea of the digital music player but struggled to raise the £60,000 he needed to renew patents in 120 countries.
He surrendered his patent and Apple went on to release the iPod in 2001, with features and a design similar to Kane’s original patent.
The device, in its multiple variations, has gone on to make billions for the tech giant, however they were under no obligation to share any of their profits with the man who first created the concept of a digital music player.
Infringing On Patents
A third example of an inventor watching on as their product becomes a financial hit for a third party is Shane Chen, the original inventor of the once-popular hoverboards.
The products were the must-have gadget of 2015 and became an online sensation when celebrities were filmed riding, and often falling off, the two-wheeled board.
Unlike the original designers of the fidget spinner and iPod, Shane did hold the patents when his product took off.
Despite this, he was powerless to stop a tide of knockoff devices that completely infringed on his patent, as he told The Guardian:
“When you have a product that sells a few, you can easily stop the knockoffs. When the product becomes too valuable, there’s nothing you can do.”
“It’s like a tsunami. Legal or illegal, they’re just going to do it.”
Shane even went to visit one of the reported 11,000 factories in China that was mass producing hoverboards based on his patented design, someone there thanked him for his imagination for inventing the board, while knowingly infringing on his patent and realising that there was very little he could do, as he claimed the patent system does not work when a product reaches a certain level of popularity.
“While it may be frustrating for inventors who miss out on the commercial success of their products there is no legal basis for them to receive any of the windfall from their original designs if they do not own the correct patents.”
“Patent law is so complex and enforcing patents across multiple countries with different legal system can be difficult, as is shown with the shocking case of Mr Chen, who has not received nearly the amount he should have for his patented invention becoming a global success a couple of years ago.”
“Away from these high-profile cases of patent law making headlines, there are countless times when an inventor does not hold the extensive patent that they once thought they did, meaning that their designs can be copied without any response.”
“Ultimately, due to the complexities of patent law it’s crucial that you seek advice from a commercial law expert if you ever find yourself filing for a patent or embroiled in a patent war.”
Written by Luke Corcoran.
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