Patent attorney offers advice about keeping ‘secret sauce’

Inventors need more than good idea 

by BETH ALTENA

Dan Girdwood of the Grand Rapids Inventors Network speaks before Rockford Rotarians earlier this year. He explained the differences between patents, trademarks and copyrights and what potential inventors should consider before trying to make money with an idea or invention.

Dan Girdwood, Grand Rapids patent attorney, was a speaker before Rockford Rotary Club members, offering good advice on how to plan and promote an invention without giving up the “secret sauce.”

Girdwood said he specializes in the field of intellectual property issues, a field of endeavor just as open to the “little people” as big corporations. He is affiliated with the Grand Rapids Inventors Network (GRIN), a nonprofit organization that helps inventors, marketers and creative people further their ideas. At the Rotary Club meeting, he described how GRIN could help would-be inventors move forward with their idea and hopefully make money in the process.

“It’s not about a patent. It’s about your business plan,” he said. “The point is to support your business plan.”

A patent gives the owner credibility in negotiation and finance, Girdwood said. It also gives owners control over employees and a stepping stone toward an exit strategy. A first step in deciding whether your invention is a good one is to do a good search and see what is out there, and good research to see if your idea is saleable. A good idea is one with broad potential use, not a narrow field of use.

Once a patent is filed, vigilance is required to make sure it isn’t being violated. “You have to take it upon yourself to do something about it if your patent is being violated,” Girdwood advised. “A patent is not a panacea. Usually a patent that is violated is a profitable one.”

Laws are in place should a patent prove to be violated, and those in violation have to pay triple the damages to the holder plus court fees—a deterrent with some teeth in it.

Timing is also of the essence, Girdwood stated. He used the example of the Sequay. Girdwood said the inventor of the single-person device now common among police for crowd control came out about 12 years ago. He said it took that long for it to be realized that police use was the prime market for the device. Provisional applications for patents last only one year and would have been long expired in that case. He said patents themselves are good for 20 years from the application filing date.

Many people don’t understand the difference between a patent and a trademark, Girdwood also said. “Trademarks identify you in the marketplace. You use a mark and it identifies you. You claim common rights.”

He said pursuing trademarks or patents is not always appropriate. “If you are going to build the company and your business, you want to trademark it early. If you are a start-up and don’t know if you are going to make it, why would you want to spend $1,000 on a trademark?”

Girdwood also explained that a business name is different than a trademark and different than a domain name.

Copyrights are a whole different animal as well. Copyrights work for inventions; you own copyrights upon creation, but if you are going to sue someone for copyright infringement, you need to be registered at copyright.gov. Anyone can register and it is a relatively low cost at $50.

GRIN is also an affordable option if someone is curious about the value of their invention and to know what to do next. “For $15 you get 15 minutes,” Girdwood stated.

Advisors sign confidentiality agreements so inventors can feel confident of sharing their ideas. Girdwood said there are different steps to receiving advice. He is a financial person who can give financial advice, while feedback in multiple disciplines is helpful. He also was quick to say the group does not write business plans for investors, but refers them to The Right Place.

There are local success stories, Girdwood said. He used the example of a person who had the idea of a stand-alone shelf with shelves open on both sides. “He took it to Art Van and talked to sales reps there on how to improve his product. That was free advice.”

Girdwood believes ingenuity and creativity is what will turn the state economy around, and in the United States we have a long tradition of being successful by our wits. “We are going to get the Michigan economy cranked up,” he said.

Inventions are not obvious, or they would already be in use, Girdwood noted. An example of this is making concrete with antifreeze, which means it can be poured in freezing weather.

At one time the United States government was thinking of closing the patent office because it was believed all the ideas possible had been thought up already. “No one is creating new molecules,” said Girdwood, “but nobody put them together into the iPad before.”

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