Whose Idea is it, Really?
Family Stories Underscore the Importance of Inventor Originality and Ethics by April Mitchell
“IF YOU don’t get it on the market, someone will.” If you are in the inventing industry, chances are you have heard this. I know I have. I have even had a couple people tell me they had the same idea as my Right Height adjustable over the door hook sometime after it hit the market.
Several times, I thought I had come up with a new and novel idea—only to find it on the market after some extensive research. There were even times when I started pitching a new concept, and around the same time a similar product became available. Given the number of people in the world, this is inevitable.
There are countless scenarios and stories involving who invented a product versus who brought it to the market. I will share some stories from my family as well as some that I have personally witnessed and let you decide whose idea it really is. My hope is that credit will be given where credit is due.
I also hope that people will be inspired from an idea, take that inspiration, and turn it into something of their own instead of capitalizing on others’ ideas.
The men in suits
The old family story goes like this: My great grandfather, who tinkered and invented all the time, came up with a revolutionary invention that changed a certain sport for all time. He also made inventions to help improve cars for a large auto manufacturer. He was always inventing. However, he never made one dime from his inventions. He had a businessman friend who helped set up a meeting with people who could help with one of his inventions.
As my dad recalls when he was very young, several men in suits came to town to see my great grandpa’s invention displayed and in action. My uncle and his friends showcased the invention’s abilities. The men took photos, measurements, and notes. They left and were never heard from again. Soon, the invention was on the market, intentionally stolen. My great-grandpa did not file for a patent, nor did he have money to fight the knockoff artists in court.
He had no knowledge of bringing a product to market, or of licensing one. So officially, whose idea was this?
Whose tool is it?
My dad owns his own drywall business. He has been working in the industry since right after high school. After learning the trade, he branched off and started a business. He has done well for himself and my family. He adapted one of his large tools to make his job easier and more proficient. It made a big difference for his work.
Eventually, the tool was manufactured and sold with this adaptation by another company, not my dad’s. He did not set out to sell and monetize his adapted tool. He did not have the resources, nor the time or money, to perfect his prototype to be manufacturer ready. He did not feel it was worth the sacrifice of time it would have taken from his family.
My dad believes that success doesn’t always come from making money on something. Success can come from being able to make an idea into reality and seeing it through, knowing you had what it takes to make it work. I think this is a great perspective, one many creators and inventors share. Could another drywall taper have come up with the same idea? Do they know who the original inventor of this product is? Should my dad the inventor be compensated? Or should it be about the person(s) who got it on the market?
Inventing vs. stealing
We have all seen neat DIY projects, fun and creative ideas on social media. People like to share photos of these with the world so other people can create and use them. They share these ideas instead of capitalizing via retail. These ideas can easily inspire us to be creative, or maybe to take an idea and modify or evolve it in some way to make it our own.
In my opinion, that is creating or inventing: when someone takes something and changes it or evolves it the way I did with my Right Height hook. Over-the-door hooks existed before Right Height; there is no debate about that. I add the adjustability to the hook so more people could reach the hooks. What is not inventing is taking a neat DIY project or trend you see on a platform and manufacturing it or licensing it as if it was your own creation—and making all the money from it. I’m sure this happens more often than we think.
This upsets the mom, teacher, inventor, and sometimes DIYer in me. Inventors, we are all better than that! What about the original inventor or creator? Whose idea is it, really? Is it the first person to make it and share it with the world, or the one who gets it on the market? Could others have come up with the same idea and not known about it?
Learn the nuances
Is it possible that two or more people could unknowingly be working on the same invention/product at the same time? Absolutely! Often, we hear it’s about being first to market with an idea—and in fact, the 2011 America Invents Act changed the country from a firstto-invent system to a first-to-file system.
But yes, sometimes inventions get stolen, as in the story of my great-grandpa. We as inventors must do our best to educate ourselves on the process. Not all inventors do it for the money. Some inventions are made to help work become easier or better; some are made for the fun of it! Use DIY projects and current trends as inspiration for your own ideas. Don’t package them and claim them as your own.
Get your creativity flowing, be inspired, and enjoy inventing!