The Wiki Man

Why I won’t patent my brilliant idea

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

25 July 2020

9:00 AM

In the past 30 years, I have driven about 8,000 miles in France in right-hand-drive cars. And I would be lying if I denied that one or two of those miles hadn’t been driven on the left-hand side of the road. This scared the life out of me. One second’s inattention elevated my risk of dying in a gruesome accident to levels previously experienced only by 1950s racing drivers or country and western singers.

Yet driving on the other side of the road is surprisingly easy — provided you start out on the other side of the road. The error occurs in the first minute of driving: setting off at dawn on an empty road, or when befuddled after stopping at a petrol station, where normal lane rules don’t apply.

So could someone please make a device that plugs into a car’s cigarette lighter, and that chimes every time you start the engine to remind you to drive on the right (or left)? Such a device might cost a few pounds to manufacture and could sell for £20. It would also be easy to market, since the only places you’d need to sell them would be at ferry ports, Le Shuttle and airport car-rental firms.


Why don’t I patent this idea? For all I know, it may already be patented. But if not, I still don’t want to patent it myself, for both ethical and self-interested reasons. For one thing, I don’t want to present legal obstacles to the creation of a life-saving product. The other reason is more complex: any idea is more likely to become widely adopted if many people can freely experiment with its possibilities without being mired in legal restrictions.

Having read Matt Ridley’s recent book How Innovation Works, I am now convinced that commonly held beliefs about innovation — and how to foster it — put cart before horse. The standard narrative is that someone has a patentable idea, at which point the ultimate application of that idea is immediately apparent and its implementation trivially obvious. This is the story we tell of every successful innovation — after it succeeds.

But our hindsight is coloured by survivorship bias — where we only see the route that succeeded, not the many failures on the way. In fact a risk-laden, iterative process of trial and error is vital to implementing almost any good idea. This was true of the steam engine, and of penicillin. (It is also true of many songs, which linger in obscurity until they find the right performer.)

So, rather than restricting the use of an idea at the beginning, what if people could register ideas that are free to use at a small to medium scale, and where payment becomes due only after notable success? This would discourage them from selfishly clinging to ideas through fear of regret. Most don’t want to extract every penny from an idea, but do fear feeling like a mug. Like the student who initially designed the Nike logo for $35, or the poor man who got £27.50 for playing saxophone on ‘Baker Street’.

Perhaps we need a kind of droit de suite over the sale of ideas. Such an arrangement could benefit both parties, turning transactions from the current winner-takes-all system to one where everyone wins. The investor pays the inventor only in the case of success. In turn, inventors would be much better off with ten chances to make £1 million than with one slim chance to make £10 million.

Inventors might not want £10 million anyway. With £10 million your spouse will probably run off with a tennis coach, your children will become crackheads and, worst of all, you could end up living in the Cayman Islands. What’s more, you might not bother to invent anything else.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.

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