Small businesses face a daunting challenge trying to protect their inventions. A new, low-cost service called LegalCorps offers some help.
Paul Ashman gazes into the mirror of one of motorcycles that has a recent patent invention called "Throttle Lock," a part specifically made for motorcycles that functions like cruise control on Thursday, June 7, 2012 in Minneapolis, Minn.
Paul Ashman quit his day job as a medical device engineer in 2009 to live on savings and chase a dream of designing and selling one-of-a-kind motorcycle parts. The only way Ashman's dream becomes a self-supporting business is if he can protect the products he invents with patents.
Enter LegalCorps, a Minnesota nonprofit that links folks like Ashman with patent lawyers who donate their time to independent inventors and small businesses.
The program, developed in Minnesota, celebrated its first birthday last week. Now, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has adopted it to meet a national challenge.
"We've taken this nationwide," said John Calvert, who runs the U.S. patent office's inventor assistance program.
"A large number of inventors who file for patents on their own have a higher tendency for failure."
Ashman, 43, can attest to that. He lost his first round with the USPTO when he filed his own paperwork to patent a motorcycle cruise control. It didn't matter that he had successfully overseen the development of surgical microscopes. Patent law was beyond him.
He's still fighting to protect what he believes is a unique product. Without free legal help from patent attorney Amy Salmela of the Patterson Thuente law firm in Minneapolis, Ashman is sure he would have already been knocked out.
"It's crazy complicated," the Minneapolis man said of federal patent law.
Nick Musachio, a St. Paul inventor getting free legal help from the new program, agreed.
"It's all about the language," said Musachio, a 55-year-old serial inventor and veteran of the patent wars.
Musachio paid thousands of dollars to lawyers to help him patent two electric car-charging methods in the early 1990s. He also paid a lawyer to file the paperwork for a compact exercise device he patented in 2000 called the KEFTY (Kinesthetic Exerciser for Transforming Yourself). None of those products has become commercially successful. He had run out of funds when it came time to protect a stretch cord to supplement his exercise machine and to try to patent digital roadside signs that tell drivers what speed to go to avoid red lights.
When the USPTO contacted him about free legal help, Musachio signed on immediately. Working with attorney Chris Hoff at Fish & Richardson, Musachio recently got a patent for his Kefty Kord, making it the first device protected under the new patent assistance model.
"The government gets bashed so much," Musachio said. "To see a program that favors the little guy is great."
Help from big donors
The USPTO's Calvert says it was big companies like 3M that helped raise the money to administer the Minnesota program and big law firms that donated attorney's time to make it work. The program does not cost taxpayers, Calvert said, and inventors must have "skin in the game" to play.
"They have to have done research to make sure their idea is patentable," he said "They have to look at prior patents."
They also have to pay a $50 fee to help with LegalCorps' administrative costs, Calvert said, and a patent filing fee that ranges from $530 to $825.
That is a small fraction of the $8,000 to $15,000 normally spent to secure a patent. The government hopes the program inspires more individual inventors and small businesses to come up with innovations even though the odds of striking it rich are minuscule. The U.S. has granted more than 8 million patents, Calvert explained, but only 4 percent of those products are on the market making money and a mere fraction of the 4 percent have really "skyrocketed."
Still, at least 60 inventors inquired about receiving patent help in the first year of the legal assistance program, LegalCorps Executive Director Michael Vitt said. Of the 24 who qualified, one (Musachio) now has a patent. Eight (including Ashman) are in the process. Eight are being helped with provisional patent applications. Two are still trying to find lawyers. Five decided not to proceed. Among the products on the drawing board are an energy-saving system, a door leveler and what Vitt described as a "bowfishing device."
Calvert believes the number of inventors and range of products will increase as word of the patent-assistance program gets out and other regional locations ramp up.
"Denver is onboard," he said. "California hopes to open this summer, and Texas and metropolitan Washington, D.C., in the fall. We've targeted June 2014 to cover the country."
A national clearinghouse already reviews products to make sure they qualify. Soon, a business plan may be required for participants to receive free legal help.
"We want to have job creation as well as inventions," Calvert said. "We have to engage more entrepreneurs."
For the program to succeed, however, independent inventors and small businesses will have to overcome what Calvert calls "natural suspicion."
"They are cautious and shy," he said. "They don't want to tell you what they're doing because they think you're going to steal their ideas. We have wracked our brains to get them to be a little less cautious and file [for patents] early.
"Somewhere along the line we will have a success story like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. There are inventors out there with great ideas who don't know where to go next."
At home with his three motorcycles, Ashman says he is not interested in being the next Earl Bakken, the legendary Minnesotan who started medical device giant Medtronic with devices designed in his garage. Ashman's cruise control will not change the world. It will allow motorcyclists to avoid the fatigue of needing to keep their wrists flexed on handlebar accelerators during long trips. Like most inventors, Ashman is just looking to protect his intellectual property and make a living.
"The benefit this [free patent help] has is security behind my product and my business model," Ashman said.
Musachio is a little more ambitious. Two decades ago, he built a hybrid car to run on roads lined with electrical strips that powered the vehicles driven over them. Last Wednesday morning at the downtown Minneapolis Hyatt, Musachio pitched the KEFTY and Kefty Kord to Telebrand, a business that runs ads for products on TV. Musachio was one of a handful of inventors chosen from hundreds of national applicants to plead for a way to mass market their products.
By Wednesday night, he was back to the grind at the Hack Factory, an old warehouse in Minneapolis' Seward neighborhood that has been turned into work space for electronics geeks. Musachio tried to resolve differences in electrical currents between the microprocessor and his digital signs that will display a speed to passing motorists so they can see green at the next traffic light.
For decades, Musachio has worked in sales, home improvement contracting and odd jobs to support himself while trying to invent. He plans to take advantage of free patent lawyers for as long as he needs to.
But only as a means to an end.
"My dream," he said, "is that I won't need a program like this."
Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752