Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Patents are Worth Less

Never confuse motion with action. Ben Franklin

Leonardo da Vinci - painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, anatomist, cartographer, botanist, geologist, writer and...


Helicopter, parachute, machine gun, musical instruments, stream cannons, scuba gear, robots, tanks and so much more are attributed to da Vinci.

But what did he really invent? I spent some time trying to find an actual da Vinci invention, one that existed outside of a drawing and functional in his day. It seems there were either none or they were unremarkable in history.

I did find one example of an attempt to reduce his drawings to practice. It seems he had a variety of ways to improve kitchen productivity. In implementing this vision, he installed conveyor belts which never could be timed to the actual needs of the cooks so that food piled up or arrived too late. He also built an oven which operated at a much higher temperature with the vision of cooking food faster but simply resulted in burnt food.

Now, much to da Vinci's credit, his conveyor belts and oven worked exactly as he planned, but the result was not the desired improvement. And this is the stumbling block of many inventions. It is not enough to be able to solve one aspect of a problem, but rather the solution must be made into a functioning part of the whole.

An invention must be more than a drawing and a few words on a piece of paper. It must add real/practical value to its user, must be manufacturable, must meet government safety regulations, must integrate into the way people want to behave and, of course, must conform to the laws of nature...and, must be significantly better than the existing alternative. Collectively, accomplishing all this is often called commercialization.

But, perhaps you think, that da Vinci provided us with the first ever vision of such possibilities. This, however, is not the case. All of his drawings evolved from prior art. Not to argue that da Vinci had not proposed more elegant and perhaps more pragmatic solutions, but simply that he was not the sole visionary.

In the most important ways, da Vinci's drawings are equivalent to the modern day patent. Much like da Vinci's drawings, for all their beauty, originality and vision, these patents are economically valueless until someone has commercialized them. (For more on this, see my blog on the master of commercialization, Thomas Edison.)

While a patent can be important in protecting the economic viability of an invention, it is important to remember it is only a part of the invention and that in the process of commercialization, the vision of the patent must often be significantly modified.

Certainly, da Vinci had a beautiful vision for the future, but it took far more than that vision so that it could BE different.

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