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Bringing Inventions to Market — Not for Naifs

by Bruce Haring

The recent National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) conclave saw a group protesting outside the Anaheim Convention Center.  The subject of the uproar? Someone felt they were ripped off.

But this particular protest didn’t involve the usual music industry complaints about stolen songwriting credits, royalty receipt malfeasance, or misappropriated copyrights. This was about an idea for an invention — that allegedly was stolen.

The protest, which attracted the likes of Exene Cervenka of seminal Los Angeles punk band X, centered on a claim by musicians Michelle Mangione and Steve Soest. They allege that their idea for a percussive pedal was appropriated without compensation by a large music merchandiser exhibiting at the NAMM show.

After approaching the merchandiser and having a meeting, then exchanging emails, the duo claims they stopped hearing from the merchandiser’s representatives. A little down the road, they saw something they claim is nearly identical to their product advertised in the merchandiser’s fliers.

The best way to get an invention to market is the hard road— sell it yourself.

An intellectual property case was filed last May in Orange County Superior Court, alleging trade secret misappropriation and breach of contract. But the well-heeled merchant defendants are battling back, and it looks like a long legal road ahead.

The story is typical of some of the foibles faced by inventors. For, much like Hunter S. Thompson once said of the music industry, the invention business is also “a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”


Everyone has a good idea at one time or another — but the world is filled with good ideas. Only the truly dedicated manage to take a concept and actually get a prototype together. It’s then that they face the world described by Thompson, which is filled with peril for the unwary.

There is a whole industry dedicated to taking fledgling inventors and leading them to sign contracts that promise much and deliver little. These companies, with names typically marrying the words “invention” with a word synonymous with “partner,” claim they will take your idea to market, allegedly helping you to refine, develop, patent and market your idea.

Of course, it sounds like a good deal. But typically, the naïve inventor is buying a lot of hot air, and winds up discouraged — and a little poorer — for the experience.

The Federal Trade Commission receives roughly 600 complaints per year about firms that claim to help take your product to market. The American Inventors Protection Act of 1999 requires invention marketing companies to reveal their activity over the past five years, including the total number of customers, how many actually licensed their inventions through the services, and the even smaller number who made a net profit. Typically, the numbers look like the batting average of a New York Mets outfielder, with far more strikeouts than hits.

The best way to get an invention to market is the hard road, which means you need to protect your idea, develop a business and marketing plan, and then sell it yourself, either through distribution, retail or online partners, or directly to a manufacturer.

The first step: hire a good patent attorney and make sure the intellectual property is properly registered. No great ideas happen in a vacuum — well, perhaps Edison’s light bulb did, but we digress — and you need to make sure that your filing will be on hand to protect you down the line from claims.

Then comes the hard part. Learn how long it takes for your product to get from a concept to the store shelf. Manufacturers have long lead times, and certainly you want to know how your potential industry operates. This is your best defense against those who want to dip into your pocket for a percentage as a “consultant” to the project.  There’s no big mystery involved in manufacturing, and what you need to know can be learned from talking to people, reading a lot, and asking the right questions. The biggest one: what’s in it for them?  Understanding their motivations and constraints will prevent a lot of inventor heartache.

As you approach various manufacturing and licensing companies, know that many of them are wary of over-the-transom deals. They prefer to deal with established relationships, ie attorneys or other licensing agents they trust, particularly with novice inventors. They will not usually sign non-disclosure agreements, so you have to understand the risk of sharing your invention idea.

Keep in mind that big companies want to see results — going in with a great idea that hasn’t sold one unit is not a solid plan. It’s better to show momentum in local and regional sales, and then go to the bigger entity that can help leverage your established momentum and take you to the next level. To use the record industry model, be a big fish in your regional market, then try to be the next U2.

Those are the pitfalls — but keep in mind that many products come to market every year in the US, and some of them are actually hits. We live in an entrepreneurial culture, and there are paths to success that don’t exist elsewhere. Just use a reasonable amount of planning and caution, and you, too, may be the next king of midnight television ads.

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