Efficient Engineering
Finding Wiggle Room in Patent Law Thinkstock

Finding Wiggle Room in Patent Law

Engineers and tinkerers—don’t let companies bully you into ownership of your brain.

In 1790, George Washington signed a bill to protect the ideas of the people and laid the foundation of America’s patent system. However, almost as soon as it started, there were issues. One of the first well-known patented inventions was the cotton gin. The inventor, Eli Whitney, spent much of his time running from court to court trying to defend his patent. The time Whitney spent in court helped ensure this legendary machine wasn’t the cash cow he had hoped for. Some people argue that the patent office should be helping inventors rather than hindering them. But today, the “people” often being helped are not individual inventors but corporations.

Having intellectual property (IP) is important. Some companies even make employees sign legal contracts granting the company ownership of anything employees produce or conceptualize. Hack-a-Thons and Make-a-Thons are hosted by some of the same types of corporations, those that ask participants to sign away any ideas or inventions created at the event to the hosting company. Once you do this you have no more rights—or do you?

The law is fickle, but fortunately sometimes flexes in favor of the little guy. In the case of the employers making engineers sign away their brains, they tend to have hordes of lawyers that make fighting them difficult. However, at a Make-a-Thon it could be argued that a person pitched an idea in the public eye. Once presented to the public, the person might have already forfeited their right to patent the idea. Although this means the person might not have exclusive rights to it, it also means the corporation doesn’t either. Once in the public domain, the originator should be free to pursue their idea, along with everyone else.

Some companies may not defend their IP if it isn’t profitable enough. A judge may draw lines in favor of the idea’s creator if the company only started to defend its IP after the originator showed that there was a valuable interested market. In addition, a judge may dictate who can sell or develop the idea to specific regions depending on the terms of any original documents signed.

Long story short, if you develop an original idea, despite what some corporation tells you, the law might bend to let you continue developing your idea in some form. A person or company has to defend their patent or paper work. So even if you signed a contract, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve signed your ownership away. If you are the original idea creator and you’ve developed it, there may be some legal wiggle room if a company tries to claim ownership. I for one have always said it is better to ask for forgiveness than get permission.

Expensive court proceedings have some companies embracing an open-source or hybrid system. Often companies agree to some licensing, or rules, realizing that working together is better than fighting in court. Other companies skip all of this, letting developers use a company’s ideas while retaining some IP. Android is a good example of a hybrid system. Android has IP, but lets developers tinker with the technology. As long as they follow certain rules, Android seems content to not pursue legal action to defend its IP.

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