Saturday, September 20, 2008

Lehman Brothers patent didn't seem to work

You'll have to forgive me if I'm speculating a bit here, but, as a patent librarian, I can't pass up such a good opportunity to illustrate a really important point for fledgling inventors.

If you pay much attention to the news, you may have noticed that major investment banks are dropping like flies. A major contributor to the economic problem has been "toxic debt," meaning, in this case, billions of dollars in mortgages that people have been unable to pay.

What you see above and to the right is the front page of a patent owned by Lehman Brothers, one of the first banks to go under, for an "Automated Loan Evaluation System." (I found this on Peter Zura's 271 Patent Blog)

Now, I have no way of knowing if anyone at Lehman Brothers actually used this system, or if it contributed to their taking on mortgages that customers were unable to pay back. Chances are, this had very little to do with the financial crisis that's the U.S. is facing right now. But still, this is like finding amidst a shipwreck a patent called "Process for Safely Navigating the Sea" or something like that.

A significant portion of the patenting process is evaluating an invention's potential to make money. It can be easy to assume, as many people do, that, in order to be patented, an invention would have to have some intrinsic value. And it's true that, in order to meet the utility requirement, an invention must be "useful." However, it's generally not very difficult to meet that requirement. As David Pressman says in Patent it Yourself (of which we've recently gotten a new edition, by the way), "It's hard for me to think of an invention that couldn't be used for some purpose."

Even a patented invention can be a commercial disaster. In fact, the rule of thumb among inventors in the know is that fewer than 10% of patents ever turn a profit for their owners. This figure is always used to illustrate the importance of doing market research before investing much money into getting something patented. It's a bummer to think that an inventor could be discouraged to pursue bringing an invention to the market by the low success rate, but it's a much bigger bummer to think about someone investing their life savings in a product that won't generate any money.

The lesson to be learned here isn't to give up on inventing because the margin for success is too narrow. Rather, before pursuing a new invention, maybe stop by the Business, Science, and Technology Desk on the fourth floor of the Main Library to do a little market research. Don't let your patent quest be a financial disaster.

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