Recently I received a copy of the book “One Simple Idea,” written by Stephen Key of Invent Right. Key is an inventor coach and through Invent Right offers a home study program for inventors, which includes personal coaching, DVD lectures, a year of online training and more. His stories as a successful inventor himself, as well as the stories of his students and those who he consults with, form the basis of the lessons in One Simple Idea. I don’t recommend all that many books, although I am asked to review many. Without hesitation I recommend Key’s book and think it should be required reading for any motivated inventor.
Aside from strongly recommending One Simple Idea I have been struggling with how to do a book review. After all, I am a patent attorney and not a literary critic. But there is so much to like about the book and so much that I think Key nails as dead on accurate. Rather than quote pieces of chapter after chapter, page after page or line after line, I thought it might be a good idea to pick up the phone and chat with Key about the book, his approach to counseling inventors and what he has learned over the years. If there is one thing I love it is a great conversation about patents and inventing!
When I started my conversation with Stephen Key I observed that his book is full of great stories to drive home numerous excellent points and is full of action items. It has always been my belief that inventors are not unsophisticated people, but they are unsophisticated many times when it comes to inventing, particular newbie inventors. So I started by asking Key how he was able to write such an understandable and approachable book on a topic that mystifies so many people.
Key explained: “The way I have been educating inventors and entrepreneurs over the years is by telling stories. I wanted to give the reader a process. This is what you need to do to get your ideas and inventions in front of people. It is really 10 steps.”
As our discussion continued it became apparent that the reason Key’s book is rather unique is because that was the goal. “What was lacking in the market was a step by step guide,” Key explained. “I didn’t want to go over information that could be obtained elsewhere.” And while he does include a chapter on protecting your ideas and inventions, which discusses the patent process, this is not a patent process book in the sense that many other books are. While I probably wouldn’t explain the patent process quite the same way as Key, I identified no inaccuracies, which is saying a lot. With these types of books so frequently the patent stuff, which can be rather mystifying in and of itself, is all wrong. Key didn’t make any mistakes, was fair and accurate and took a cost-benefit approach to recommending patent protection.
In fact, as our discussion turned to patents he explained that he is not anti-patent at all. “I make a good living because of patents,” Key explained. “I have been in federal court suing over patents, so I am the biggest supporter of the USPTO that you will ever find. My question is when do you use those tools?” That in and of itself is excellent advice. I always advise my clients that a patent is a tool, a business asset, and time needs to be spent to define what it is that is hoped to be achieved in order to make the decision of when and how to pursue patent rights.
There is no doubt, however, that Key has what many would call a unique perception of what patent rights provide. But to hearing him talk about patent rights from a purely business context hit home; a true kindred spirit.
“Patents are perceived ownership because you really don’t ever own anything. Patents are just words. When you are in federal court you are going to argue about words and everything can be designed around. So you don’t need a patent, you need perceived ownership. that is why companies are going to pay me, because today it is speed to market and who owns the shelf space. They are your partner. They have everything that you are lacking.”
I could, and will, quibble about the “you don’t need a patent” line, but what Key is saying is perfectly accurate. He has been involved in litigation over his patent portfolio, which is 13 patents strong. In litigation he knows that the district court judge will construe the meaning of the claim terms and until then you really only have an idea about what the claims mean vis-a-vis the allegedly infringing product. He also knows that what gets deals done are good inventions and the belief that good rights have been or will be obtained. Without trying to put words in his mouth, based on the totality of our conversation I think it is probably more accurate to read the “you don’t need a patent” line as more of a caution about getting any old patent. You just don’t need a patent, you need to have ownership (or prospective ownership) over something that is deemed valuable enough to license.
Then Key rattled off a handful of patent thoughts that are too good not to provide:
- “You can cut two different deals, one if you get a patent and one if the patent doesn’t issue.”
- “I like that the patent system is slow. You never know what I have.”
- “I love continuations. I love hiding my hand.”
- “I know if I have a big idea I am going to need a wall of patents.”
Indeed, continuations are your best friend. If you get to the end of the patent process and you have some claims that are allowed you can peel those off and allow a patent to issue and then file a continuation to go back for more claims. If you filed a thorough, complete and broad application to start you can keep doing this over and over. A series of continuations isn’t right for everyone, but if you are making serious money on your invention you will likely be well served by continuing to seek ever broader patent protection.
As far as the patent system being slow, sometimes that can be an advantage in certain industries. In the areas where I do most of my work — software and Internet technologies — the patent process is woefully slow and needs to be much faster. It is, however, very true that many times deals get done because there is uncertainty involved. Litigations settle when both parties fear they could lose, and business deals get done when both parties have fear; perhaps one fearing no patent will issue and the other fearing a strong patent with broad claims will issue. So it is not crazy to hear someone praise a slower patent system, although that is not right for everyone.
Inevitably, given the tough economic times of the day, our conversation turned to the economy. Key is bullish. “You can look throughout history and when times are tough that is when some of the greatest innovations come forward,” Key explained. “When I really needed to make a buck was when I was the most creative. There is something about having your back up against the wall that makes you creative.”
But don’t quit your day job as you pursue a career in inventing! When I saw that in Key’s book (it appears early on) I knew the book was a winner. I can’t think of any better advice to provide, and it came with the familiar stories to make the lesson real. In our conversation Key said: “Like anything else you need to test the waters. You never want to put yourself in a situation where you are desperate. Inventing is something you can do while you are working.” So for goodness sake, have enough success under your belt that you have turned inventing into complete replacement income before ever making the decision to quit your day job.
So what makes One Simple Idea different? Key says: “What really makes a difference in the book is that I have been using this process myself for years. I have many students around the world who use these steps and it works. These are normal everyday people who see problems, who want to be creative.”
“I consider myself a no risk entrepreneur. I hate risk. When I go to Vegas I don’t gamble, but my business is the biggest gamble on the planet. I have reduced the risk, playing the odds, by having a lot of ideas, in a lot of industries. I increase my chances, and that is what the book does — help you increase your chances. Don’t chase your dream, but try. The last thing I want to do is sell a dream. My program and my book is about ‘you can do it.'”
“If you are looking at this to be the lottery you need to do something else. You should really love it. Be a professional. Invest in yourself through education.”
So what are you waiting for? As our conversation ended Key gave one final piece of advice: “Get off the couch and get in the game.” Amen to that. As you are contemplating getting into the game I strongly recommend One Simple Idea: Turn Your Dreams into a Licensing Goldmine While Letting Other Do the Work. The list price is $22, but sells on Amazon.com for less than $15. You will definitely get well more than $15 worth of information from this book, making is a must have for any inventor.
Join the Discussion
15 comments so far.
Mark NowotarskiJune 14, 2011 01:50 pm
“don’t quit your day job”
Unless, of course, your day job IS to invent.
Gene QuinnJune 14, 2011 01:50 pm
Indeed, that is the money quote! It also goes to debunk the myth that Stephen Key is anti-patent. Some of what he says might be able to be interpreted that way, which allows him to be marginalized in the patent industry at times (i.e., “you don’t need a patent”). When you dig deeper what he is saying is far more nuanced and dead on accurate. Having a patent isn’t enough, and getting a patent for the sake of getting a patent isn’t going to help.
Mark NowotarskiJune 14, 2011 01:46 pm
“I know if I have a big idea I am going to need a wall of patents.”
Now that’s the money quote!
boJune 13, 2011 04:01 am
you wont be able to get a decent job if you dont sign away most or all of your rights to your invention
boJune 13, 2011 03:50 am
UC Berkeley Grad Student is right about the reality of our business environment
Stan E. DeloJune 12, 2011 01:32 pm
I have heard one of the most knowledgable and experienced business/marketing experts that I know of say several times that *Everything* in business agreements is negotiable, as long as they are not illegal at the State level at least, and that everyone is satisfied with the agreement. Ideally everyone also profits from them as much as possible, or why accept any particular agreement? Your results may vary, so caveat emptor.
Gene QuinnJune 12, 2011 12:16 pm
First, you say it was @Gene that wrote the comment about you making the decision to sign an employment agreement. That was not me, it was Stan. Having said that, he is of course correct. If you signed an agreement that purports to give away 100% of your invention rights that is on you. I understand you wouldn’t have had the job, but that is the deal you struck. It most certainly does not mean that ALL deals are that way, or that the law would actually enforce that part of an agreement in all 50 states.
Then you attack me and say that good lawyers are more familiar with business realities than I am. Really? Most lawyers are not at all familiar with business, and as a serial entrepreneur and business owner I am far more aware than most. I am certainly far more aware of business realities than you.
You signed an agreement (apparently) that gave all your invention rights away regardless of whether it relates to your employment or not and you want to try and call into question MY business acumen? You misstate the law and you ASSUME that just because you signed a ridiculous agreement that means that all such agreements are ridiculous.
Whether you want to believe it or not, employment agreements don’t require the sacrificing of ALL intellectual property rights. I just read one last week that an inventor wanted me to review because he was concerned about the language. It was limited to those areas where the employer operates and tangential businesses that they might go into. It is also true to observe that many employers don’t have employment agreements, particularly small businesses.
So why not tell us why are you not being truthful? Why are you promulgating inaccuracies? Is it to try and make yourself feel better for signing an overbroad agreement? Why lash out at me for speaking the truth? Whey does reality offend you so much?
You are far to comfortable with your inaccurate understanding of the law than you should be. I feel sorry for you.
UC Berkeley Grad StudentJune 12, 2011 04:21 am
@Gene writes: UC Berkeley Grad Student seems to question my lawyering skills? But why?
Because good lawyers are more familiar with business realities than you are.
You seem to live in a la-la land where employment agreements don’t include a clause sacrificing all intellectual property interests, where employers are willing to pay lawyers to modify IP agreements on a per-employee basis, and where all sorts of other ridiculous things are true.
I’m sure it’s hypothetically possible that such a world exists. Good lawyers do not pretend that we live in it.
UC Berkeley Grad StudentJune 12, 2011 04:17 am
@Gene wrote: “Sounds like a personal problem to me, as YOU made the decision to sign an employment agreement like that. I would simply refuse to sign such an agreement”
… then YOU wouldn’t be employed, and this entire line of argument does not apply to you.
Of course there’s a choice. You seem to have skipped the part of the article that starts by assuming the choice to be employed (i.e. to sign away one’s interest) HAS ALREADY BEEN MADE. If that isn’t the case, you’re commenting in the wrong thread, buddy.
Ron HiltonJune 11, 2011 07:23 pm
Sounds like a book I definitely need to add to my library. Thanks for the great review/interview. The part about slow vs. fast patent issuance is very true. That is why I favor a multi-track/multi-tier system, because one size doesn’t fit all.
Gene QuinnJune 11, 2011 02:43 pm
UC Berkeley Grad Student seems to question my lawyering skills? But why? I think I know, and if I am right it is because he/she has a myopic view of patent law and invention rights.
It is true that you have to read the patent assignment clause in any employment agreement to know what your rights are.
It is equally true that many, if not most, agreements pertain only to inventions that relate to either the job of the employee, the business pursuits of the employer or the likely future business pursuits of the employer.
It is also true to say that an agreement that purports to give an employer 100% of all inventions regardless of the field of invention are overbroad and can be challenged in at least some states.
If you are a janitor and you invent a child’s toy then your invention rights won’t be given to your employer. Similarly, if you are a postal worker and you invent a gardening tool your invention rights won’t be owned by your employer. Still further, if you are a school bus driver and you invent an improved bird feeder your employer won’t own your invention. Further still… by now you should be getting the point.
It is also 100% true to say that many companies, despite what is in their own best interest and despite the best legal advice to the contrary, still don’t have employees sign employment agreements that require confidential information be kept as a trade secret and don’t require the assignment of patent rights that are even directly in the field of the employer. The ruling in Stanford v. Roche should be an alert to these people that ownership vests in the inventor despite where funding comes from.
Finally, anyone who has invented something unrelated to their employment finds their employer making claims to their invention — call me. At the very least find a lawyer who understands the law and don’t just assume you have lost all rights as UC Berkeley Grad Student suggests. That is simply not the case.
Stan E. DeloJune 11, 2011 01:59 pm
UC Berkeley Grad Student –
Sounds like a personal problem to me, as YOU made the decision to sign an employment agreement like that. I would simply refuse to sign such an agreement, and if they don’t like that I would just go elsewhere. Patent attorneys are among the most highly trained *lawyers* there are, taking as much investment in time and expense as becoming a medical doctor, for instance.
James M.June 11, 2011 07:39 am
@UC Berkeley Grad Student
Relevant comment, however this isn’t always the case…
While it’s true for some employment situations (yes — be sure to read your employment agreement and see if you’ve pre-assigned all of your intellectual property rights), it’s not true for others. Also, in my experience with IP and starting several companies, inventions that are unrelated to one’s employment can often be carved out. The key is — especially where an employer owns rights to your inventions or there’s any doubt — to be open with your employer and to seek a written exemption, release or assignment for the specific IP that’s of interest to you.
Also, take a look at Gene’s recent post on the Supreme Court decision on Stanford v. Roche.
James M.June 11, 2011 07:33 am
Thanks for this review — just ordered it on Amazon! For patenting, I like “Patent It Yourself” by David Pressman, a book that’s been around for a while and gone through several revisions. Another enjoyable read that’s complementary is “Forbes Greatest Technology Stories: Inspiring Tales of the Entrepreneurs and Inventors Who Revolutionized Modern Business.” And if you’re planning to make a business out of your inventing, I’d also recommend a book called “Entrepreneur’s Notebook: Practical Advice for Starting a New Business Venture.” All make for good reading and offer down-to-earth practical advice.
UC Berkeley Grad StudentJune 11, 2011 06:32 am
“don’t quit your day job”
Um, no. If you haven’t quit your day job, your employer owns all of your inventions and potential patent rights. Go re-read that patent agreement you signed when you were hired.
And you people call yourselves lawyers…