Hot Seat
I've designed a chair that is unique and marketable. How can I protect my designs when I approach manufacturers with my ideas? Timothy Fox

Wareham, Mass.

"All the money people spend protecting their ideas would be better spent trying to penetrate the market faster," says June Lavelle, president of the Fulton-Carroll Center, in Chicago. (See "Mother of Invention," October 1989, [Article link].) Her incubator houses several furniture makers, and none, she says, sought patent protection for its designs. "If you really do have something good that's easy to copy, of course it's going to be ripped off. The real purpose of a patent is to slow down the competition, but how much does it truly slow them down? And how deep are your pockets? Because that means litigation. Well, shoot, isn't your money better spent marketing than litigating?

"The best defense is to hit the marketplace so fast that you get good market share before someone has the opportunity to knock you off," Lavelle says. As a last resort, she says, "I would knock myself off" -- in other words, produce a cheaper version of her furniture before competitors could.

Others don't dismiss patent protection. "Right now the courts are deciding very much in favor of inventors, and patents are worth a lot," Don Moyer, founder of the Inventors' Council, in Chicago, says. It may take a few years for your application to be reviewed, but simply filing establishes the date of the patent pending. A carefully maintained, witnessed notebook can be used to tell when you conceived of your product. But you must file within a year of making your idea public or trying to commercialize it. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office publishes the pamphlet "General Information Concerning Patents" (Superintendent of Documents number 003-004-00651-0), available from the Government Printing Office (202-783-3238) for $2. You may also establish the dates of conception of the idea with a disclosure document, which costs only $6 to file. Someone else can still win the patent on your idea, however, if he or she can prove earlier conception. For more information, call (703) 557-INFO.

You can also protect yourself with nondisclosure agreements, in which the signer agrees not to use or disclose your idea. Waltham, Mass., patent lawyer Joseph Iandiorio warns that some corporations, instead of signing such an agreement, will produce their own, which releases them from any obligation of confidentiality. "Those are the kind you don't want to sign," Iandiorio says.

Don Moyer thinks you may have trouble getting big companies to sign a secrecy agreement. "Manufacturers' mothers told them, 'Sonny, don't ever talk to inventors. Five years from now you'll forget you saw this and think you invented it, and that will get you into trouble.' You have to overcome the manufacturers' fears." Show that a market exists for your product -- perhaps by selling some of your chairs first. Also, know something about the business. "The inventor has to understand what's a good product for a manufacturer. Will it be made in Malaysia? How will it pack? Will it fit on a pallet?" Another tip from Moyer: small manufacturers with less to lose may be less skittish.

Bob Bennett, who invented MicroFridge, a combination microwave freezer-refrigerator (see "The Small Chill," February 1990, [Article link]), got all the manufacturers he spoke with -- including Sanyo and Samsung -- to sign such agreements. But he gave them good reasons to do so. Before contacting the manufacturers, Bennett developed a plan for selling the product through colleges and hotels, and paid for a customer survey that proved his product had a market. Your survey will carry more weight if you have a third party design and conduct it. But Bennett says you can design and conduct one yourself. For help, we suggest Do-It-Yourself Marketing Research, by George Edward Breen and Albert B. Blankenship (McGraw-Hill, 1989, 800-262-4729).

"I was petrified that someone would steal my idea," says Bennett, "but the whole business of stolen ideas is really overblown. Ideas are easy. What really makes a company happen is an individual with the drive and energy to do it." n -- Michael P. Cronin