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Davison and being an inventor

Last week a company called Davison was running targeted ads on Instructables through Google Adsense. Google Adsense typically places contextual-based ads on sites making connections between advertisers and publishers based on their search technology. However, advertisers can also work with Google to directly placed ads on specific sites. At first, we were flattered that Davison chose to target us, and further flattered that they were actually using our terminology in their ads. You may have seen "Cool Instructable?" or "Have an Instructable?" text ads running in our right sidebar.

After checking out what Davison does, I decided they weren't a good fit with us and removed the ads. Normally, this would be no big deal, but because of the business Davison is in and the specifics of this case, I wanted to share my thinking.

Davison solicits ideas from independent inventors, creates prototypes, markets potential products to manufacturers and distributors, and collects royalties. This is not worlds different from what we did at Squid Labs, except I would characterize Squid's activities as more technical and with the aim of creating sustainable businesses rather than exclusively creating products to be licensed.

The rub comes in that Davison is not forthcoming with how they actually make money: high fees paid by the independent inventors. Here's a Forbes article that goes into greater depth, but for me, the important statistic is this:

37,000 or so people have contracted Davison Design's services in the last five years; but only eight of those who have signed up have realized royalties exceeding their fees to Davison.

A 0.02% success rate is just awful, and clearly shows that they are preying upon people who don't know any better.

The thing that personally put me over the edge was a section from their Questions and Myths:

9. Can I tell people about my idea? We recommend that you do not publicly disclose your invention/idea to anyone (not even a friend or a family member), unless you have confidential documents in place to verify that you are the originator of the invention.

Obviously, I have a conflict of interest, because I want you to share your initial ideas here in the forums and how you built your ideas into prototypes as Instructables to help me grow the site; however, the concept of absolute secrecy is anathema to me. Here at Squid Labs, we know of no one that has had their invention stolen by some big corporation (more on this at Saul's column in Makezine Vol. 9; full text available as an attached PDF, kindly permitted by Make). My experience has uniformly been that sharing yields stronger results than hiding. The person you share your ideas with might turn into a business partner and be instrumental in your shared success.

Clearly there's demand for services to help inventors. Davison seems to have a nice facility at Invention Land; instead, why don't they invite the almost 8000 people per year that contact them to attend an "invention boot camp?" Attendees could learn some basic design, CAD, and machining skills, give mock presentations, and learn how to do a preliminary patent search. If Davison was doing a good job, they would start to see some success from their graduates, and companies looking for innovation would seek out the graduates or ask to attend the camp's final design reviews.

Teaching people all these skills might sound impossible - like a full undergraduate and graduate series of degrees compressed into an 80-hour crash course. No course can cover everything- instead, it should give motivated people the basic skills and confidence to start doing it themselves, and teach them how to seek out the additional knowledge they need. It's surprising what motivated people can accomplish if you just get them started.

In 2002 Saul and I taught a one-week class called Cyclomerisation where we taught a group of 12 people just enough bicycle design, CAD, and manufacturing to make them dangerous. Each person then designed their own custom bicycle using 8020 extruded aluminum and jet-machined connectors. We had telescoping unicycles, recumbent tricycles, and plenty of standard bikes; for example, check out Saul's 8020 Chopper. Half the participants were MIT students, half were not, and it made no difference -- everyone was motivated to learn something new and to put it into practice.

If this idea isn't Davison's thing, then maybe I've found a project to work on after Instructables can run itself. In the meantime, I'm sharing the idea with all of you, because that's the best way to vet it, see if it has legs, and make it stronger.

More pictures from Cyclomerisation here and here.

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vatosupreme10 years ago
I agree with you. My friends used a similar service once. It was the one where the caveman carves the wheel on TV. The company actually had an office in our city. My friends asked me what I thought of their inventions, an automatic plant watering machine and a Lawn mower blade. I did a quick search on the USPTO and fount many similar patented items.

When they went to this company's office, the guy there said that their inventions were really great, and that he was "confident" that he would be able to sell these ideas to one of the "many" companies with which they work.

Long story short. My friends spent somewhere North of $3,500 dollars for each idea and what did they get? A patent maybe? NO! They got to the first stage of the process with some working drawings that were bound in a book and very professional looking. But they found out that it was going to take another $7,000 to get to the "next level".

One thing for all of us inventive types to remember: It is purported (no hard data here, but would love some) that only 3 percent of patents ever pay for themselves. Which is a much better percentage than Davidson, but still not very good. If you can't do a lot of the work yourself, you end up paying an attorney $150-$250/ hour to work on your patent. So 75 hours could run about $15,000. So is hiring a patent attorney so much different from Davidson? I think so, because on the front end, an attorney can tell you the billing rate and an estimate of how long the patent will take. But at the end of the day, if an IP attorney isn't generating the bulk of his/her revenues from sophisticated corporate clients, but rather specializing in small inventors, that attorney is doing basically the same thing as Davidson (check the back of PopSci/PopMech). But, at least a patent attorney has a fiduciary responsibility to tell you if your invention isn't patentable. (And a malpractice insurance policy to go after.)

Now, don't forget, getting a patent doesn't mean some company will just buy it from you. (Although it does happen. I know the guy who invented and patented what is now the Bowflex Treadclimber and he got about $250,000 as an advance and a small percentage of sales.) For many inventions, a company will want to see that it is being produced and generating sales. You may be required to have a means of production lined out and your invention may even already have to be in production. (I have another friend who sold one of his inventions (non-patented) on QVC home shopping. They required that he had 3,000 units made and ready to ship before they gave him the spot. ) So, if you have to have something geared up and ready, you may need to have $300,000 or more available.

Finally, having a patent doesn't mean someone isn't going to blatantly copy your product and take it to china for production and sell it for half as much as you can. It takes real money to prosecute a patent infringement lawsuit. I am not sure, but I think I.P attorneys are not very excited to take these cases on a contingency basis for most things. (well maybe not the Research in Motion case :p ). In other words, if you have to go after someone for infringement, you probably need another suitcase full of money.

Unfortunately, making gobs of money from your invention isn't as easy as it may seem. Which is why the Magnet Glove is on Instructables and not on the shelves of Wal-Mart.

The expense runs up, using a lawyer, mainly from two activities, a search for existing patents on your idea and from a search for any existing public publications on your idea. The real kick in the pants is, the bill for doing this is guaranteed but no guarantees they didn't miss something and you still don't get a patent. OUCH!

A friend sunk $50K into a patent pursuit and when he called the patent office, they said it was considered abandoned since his lawyer hadn't answered requests for information/clarification. Lawyer is nowhere to be found.

As for 3% produce profits, I can't believe how many patents there are on wig stands. !?!?! Apparently no market research first.

Finally, having a patent doesn't mean someone isn't going to blatantly copy your product and take it to china for production and sell it for half as much as you can. It takes real money to prosecute a patent infringement lawsuit.

And how.... Having a patent is no good if you can't defend it. I guess it's like a castle wall -- it gives you a place (rights) to protect your castle :P

...some working drawings that were bound in a book and very professional looking.
That's terrible.... That's one thing you're seldom told.... write EVERYTHING in bound books.... no looseleaf :P
dan10 years ago
i think it would be useful if out of this discussion and this one we came up with a simple list of advice for instructables users thinking about intellectual property. for example:

- creative commons protects the text & images of your project only

- public disclosure of an idea (such as here) is very different than private disclosure, and can help prove your claims as an inventor, or ensure that the invention can never be patented in the future (a donation to humanity).

- provisional patents are cheap and easy, generally not requiring a lawyer.

- etc.

Provisional patents are easy to get. It costs $100, and the form is 1 page, and a second page just for you to sign you name, plus you include your invention in some form, although, all they need is a title, and a description, and they don't even read it, it's there for you to refer to if somebody steals your invention. And a provisional patent makes anything officially and legally PAF. I'm holding 7 provisionals right now, and a couple are military, and even Pentagon/CIA. You don't need a lawyer for anything. The patent office (USPTO) is available by phone 24/7 to answer any questions. You can do everything online, they even prefer it. The USPTO is the one government agency the really works. And the government wants people to get patents on their ideas because it helps the economy if you can come up with something new and useful and start a business. And they make it easy for individuals, and "small entities," by charging much lower fees to file for a patent, compared to what the cost is for a company. I know the patent system system inside out. Defending a patent is when you'd need an attorney. I think I'll make my first instructable be a quick tutorial on the patent system, and the USPTO.
dan10 years ago
i *have* heard the occational story from people that have had their inventions "stolen" by others, including major corporations. however it is certainly a far less common occurrance than that of an invention which languishes in a garage because of insufficient exposure. the details of how inventions get "stolen" vary - in that if the inventor ends up with a very poor business arangement you might say that is essentially theft. on the other hand it is pure fantasy that one can make millions merely for thinking of an idea. making money takes work. in the case of "inventions", by far most of the work is on the business side, not the technical side.

i posted a more full discussion of this here: http://squid-labs.com/blog/?p=16
InfamousKirch10 years ago
All those "Inventor we'll patent your ideas and help you become a millionaire" things are SCAMS ... sure it's tough getting a patent and you need a patent lawyer, BUT at least that way you have a chance .... Most of those companies just scam wide-eyed wet-behind-the-ears inventors into giving them new things to profit from ....
Scrupulous10 years ago
I'm in complete agreement with you, Eric, and for slightly different reasons. Being a member of the US Patent Bar, my angle is more from a patenting perspective. And, in terms of IP rights, the United States still offers a unique advantage.

The originator of an invention is free to publicize his or her work, for up to a full year before filing for a patent. One caveat to this is that publishing it pretty much rules out the option of filing for a patent in a foreign country. But, if a market of 300 million English-speaking people is adequate, publicizing an invention can provide a solid foundation for eventual property rights.

The reason for this is, once an idea is made public (at a place such as Instructables) it establishes proof-of-concept for the individual(s) who publicized it. At that point, in simple terms, no one else in the world can lay claim to that invention and receive a patent for it. So, like you say, sharing yields much stronger results than secrecy.

It's actually beneficial to everyone, generally speaking, for the reasons you outlined, as well. The advantages of salting out ideas in a forum like this, IMHO, outweigh the risks by tons. What's now loosely coined as the "wiki" method has been proven to be very effective. So much so, that the USPTO is actually going to conduct an experimental program (called Community Patent Review) in the very near future, for computer-related patent applications. It's a process that will actually mimic certain aspects of sites like this.

I personally appreciate this site for a number of reasons, though. One of them is the somewhat altruistic nature of many of the ideas. Another is instructables like the tin-foil hat (Or is it aluminum? I can never remember). But, I really hope this site continues to do well. It reminds me of the Half-bakery. In some ways it's much better, I think, in terms of productivity.

And, although it wouldn't be wrong to maintain one's IP rights while contributing to this forum, the good thing is that they go hand-in-hand, more or less. Ironically, publishing an invention without pursuing IP rights can actually discourage venture capitalists, because they wouldn't be able to protect their own investments. It's something to think about.

Anyway, I've found that most people have the same important questions about the patenting process. Before getting into patent work myself, I always thought it was frustrating to have to jump through a bunch of hoops just to get some simple answers. So, if anyone here has any questions on that particular subject, just post them here or send me a message. Or click patents, if you like.

Jezza Bear10 years ago
Interesting Davidson54.com appears in the googleAds on my website. It is obviously picking on keywords. Is it a matter of contacting Google to remove unwanted companies or is there a listing that you can exempt?
ewilhelm (author)  Jezza Bear10 years ago
It's automatic - check under competitive filter.
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