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mike ross

Patent ruling: Fewer trolls, more fun

The recent Supreme Court decision to limit frivolous patent challenges is being celebrated by inventors, scientists, and business leaders, but what does it mean for you and me? After all, how many of us have thought up a great idea, only to see it appear in the marketplace soon thereafter?

“I thought of that years ago; I could have made millions!” we complain.

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If thinking up great ideas were all one needed to do, we’d all be rich like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. But it’s the doing that really matters, as the court’s decision confirms. For years, that “doing” involved a series of expensive steps that made taking a product to market complicated enough to keep most armchair inventors away. But recent technological innovations like 3D printing, crowdsourcing, and social media have lowered barriers enough that now almost anyone can become an inventor.

First you need to start with an original idea, typically something that needs changing. For me, that’s easy. Some see the world for all its glory; I see a bunch of problems in need of tinkering. My latest annoyance is seagulls. A peaceful day on the beach can suddenly turn Hitchcock when errant sunbathers leave unattended bags of chips on their blankets. I swear I once saw a seagull unzip a handbag on Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester.

My “invention” is called Bird Block. It’s a blanket with weighted edges that you place over food to keep birds out.

The old way to bring this invention from idea to reality would have been costly and complicated. My friend Matt Rubin does this for a living. His company OnTrend Products recently came up with an idea called “Deskeez,” the world’s most lovable lapdesk. It’s a stuffed animal with a flat surface on its back so kids can have a portable table to use wherever they are. His first prototype to pitch to retailers cost him nearly $100,000. Fulfilling an order with Staples cost several hundred thousand more. If it catches on, his company will make a good profit. If not, he’s on to the next idea.

Personally, if this were the only available method to bring ideas to fruition, I would have dropped my Bird Block idea. But now there are options for the rest of us.

That’s the greatest form of invention, also known as innovation.

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Quirky is a website designed for anyone who doesn’t have a couple of hundred thousand dollars lying around. It's the closest thing to coming up with an idea and just wishing that the universe will create it and the money will follow. Launched five years ago, it allows “inventors” to literally draw an idea on the back of a napkin and submit it through its website. It then gets vetted by an evaluation process that is live and open to public engagement from online viewers. If selected, crowdsourcing takes over, and the idea can be improved upon. If the product goes to market, the inventor and those who made improvements share 10 percent of the profit.

And so I bit. I have submitted my idea online, which took all of 15 minutes. As I await my evaluation, I can practically taste the riches that will come my way when the world discovers the genius of seagull-free beaches.

Rubin, who also sees the barriers lowering for his industry, is adapting. He and others in his space are now creating public-facing websites that also cull good ideas. Eventually, the distance between professional retail manufacturers and websites like Quirky will close until they merge into one. And that’s the greatest form of invention, also known as innovation.

For years, an ineffective system served the interests of “trolls,” who buy up old patents just in order to sue people whose inventions may, in some vague technical way, have infringed on them. The court’s recent decision changes that and removes an unnecessary drag on our economy. But an even greater advancement are the technologies that provide real access to all of us to enter the marketplace. That, and fewer seagulls disrupting your day on the beach.

POSTSCRIPT: After submitting this column I received the following email from Quirky: “Unfortunately, your idea did not receive enough staff interest and Quirky is passing on your idea at this time. Take it from us, invention is hard. Disappointment is part of the process, but it often helps us learn the most. (As Thomas Edison famously said: ‘I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work!’).”

Mike Ross’s column appears regularly. Follow him on Twitter @MikeForBoston.
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