fb pixel

Log In


Reset Password

You and your big ideas! Don't just stand there ...

Thomas Edison, how we love thee. You brought us the motion picture projector and the phonograph. You spared us the agony of having to answer the phone with "ahoy-hoy!" — the preferred greeting of your contemporary, Mr. Graham Bell — by opting for the word "hello."

And, of course, you gave us the light bulb, which not only illuminated our world, but also came to symbolize the thinking man's greatest treasure: the idea.

You had lots of ideas. More than 1,000 patents were issued under your name! So riddle us this: If a light goes on over your head and nobody else sees it glow, does it make an invention? The answer is what separates the inventor from the merely inventive.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va., granted more than 170,000 patents last year and registered or renewed over 120,000 trademarks.

A recent Washington, D.C., area casting call for "Everyday Edisons," a PBS show that chronicles the journey of inventing, turned up nearly 1,000 hopefuls.

At the audition, a man holding a makeshift golf club sat two seats from a woman clutching Tupperware. Like most of the would-be Edisons, they were reluctant to discuss their inventions.

Their arms were crossed, as if shielding their ideas from predators.

Richard C. Levy, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cashing In on Your Inventions," says they are representative of the amateur inventor, of which there are two types:

"The paranoid and the more paranoid."

Of course, inventors should be discreet: Once an idea is publicly disclosed, the clock starts ticking, and an inventor has 12 months to file a patent to protect this bit of intellectual property. But most beginners do not understand that an idea is just an idea.

Matt Fleming, 32, is an exception. At the casting call, the Arlington, Va., resident played his unpatented tabletop game in plain sight, because, he says, "I don't have the patience or money to hide my inventions."

Fleming, a clinical psychologist, is the man behind SparkBugg.com, a blog about ideas, based on his belief that — surprise! — ideas beget more ideas. Which is why he's not overly concerned about someone stealing his.

Besides, he says, "it needs to be your own baby to really run with it, to really believe in it."

Says Don Kelly, co-founder of the Henrietta, N.Y.-based United Inventors Association: "People in general are clueless as to where to start and how much actual work and dedication has to go into it."

Only 54 percent of patent applications receive approval, according to the patent office. A patent application typically costs upward of $3,000 and can easily run more than $20,000, depending on the complexity of the patent and whether an inventor chooses to hire a patent lawyer (as opposed to a patent agent) to write the claims.

"Inventing is a crapshoot," Levy says. "It's a high-wire act without a net."

Frampton Ellis, 62, of Arlington, Va., is a inventor success story. He earned his first patent for an athletic shoe designed to limit ankle injuries by mimicking the bare foot — an idea that came to him one day while he was playing basketball without shoes and noticed that his naked foot provided more stability than his sneakers.

The result: Ellis got the big payoff. In 1994, he signed a licensing agreement with Adidas, and the company trotted out its Feet You Wear line based on his design. Steffi Graf won the 1996 U.S. Open wearing the shoes.

Later, when Adidas stopped paying royalties in 2001, Ellis had to litigate. He won the suit — and a hefty settlement, though he won't disclose the amount.

But none of this would have come to be if Ellis hadn't spent seven years tinkering with and peddling his invention, sacrificing nights, weekends and vacation time while holding a full-time job as a budget analyst. He estimates that he spent close to $200,000 on patents and a prototype of the shoe. To market it, he attended trade shows and networked with industry engineers. At one footwear convention, he hopped onto a table barefoot to demonstrate his design — a desperate attempt to call attention to his product.

"That took some guts," he says.

Inventing requires intrepidness and persistence. After all, even Edison acknowledged that genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.

Daniel Davala, an inventor from Fairfax, Va., knows this basic truth: "You can have a great idea, you can build it, you can show people — but nobody else is going to sell it for you."

(Incidentally, inventors lecture ad nauseam about the perils of marketing scam companies — firms that promise to help develop and promote your invention but often do little besides drain your wallet. The patent office has a scam prevention brochure — found on its Web site, www.uspto.gov, in the Inventor Support section under Inventor Resources — that warns about these companies.)

Davala, 29, has a patent pending on a knife for measuring butter — a kitchen tool that he says he expects will be "as common as a measuring cup in the near future."

While fixing macaroni and cheese one night in 2000, he grew annoyed with reading the greasy measuring wrappers on partially used sticks of butter, and conceived of the need for a ruler/butter knife.

Davala recently decided to become a full-time inventor ("I have a very supportive wife," he says). Though he has roughly 80 ideas he'd like to pursue, he chose the butter knife as his first real foray into inventing because of its simplicity. The purpose and mechanics of the knife are relatively straightforward, making it easier for Davala to write the patent, which he did without a patent agent or lawyer. He also made his own prototype.

Now, he's moving on marketing his knife. To start, he walked into a household goods store and jotted down customer service numbers for similar products. He then called them, asking to be redirected to the department that handles outside inventions. Before he submitted his knife to a company for review, he looked up the patent for another product marketed by the firm and cold-called the inventor for advice on how best to approach the firm.

This kind of exhaustive research is imperative, Davala says, because "your job is to convince the world that they need a product that they've never needed before."

Edison recognized the plight of the inventor, the passion and the pluckiness that it takes to persevere.

"I have more respect for the fellow with a single idea who gets there," he said, "than for the fellow with a thousand ideas who does nothing."