Why Patents Don't Necessarily Make You Rich, and Other Myths

Have you invented something wonderful? Patent it! But don’t count on making much money.

Just about every significant modern convenience is protected by a picket fence of patents, and even the silly, cheap doo-dads you find at the bottoms of cereal boxes are usually patented or emblazoned with a “Patent Pending” statement. People patent anything that can make money these days… even genes.

There’s nothing wrong with that, because patents protect inventors from imitators and help us build our technology, piece by piece. And as Einstein proved, patent offices are great places to think (he conceived many of his greatest ideas while working as a patent clerk).

But patents and the patenting process, like everything else, have their myths. Let’s crack a few, shall we?

Myth 1: If you patent something, you’ll get rich!

Tell that to the guy who invented the baby dust-mop (a special suit baby wears while crawling across the floor) or the kid who patented a new way to swing on his swing set. In order to set you up for life, a patent has to have commercial value.

In other words, someone somewhere has to think it’s worth producing what you’ve patented. Even then, they have to successfully market it. For every chia pet or Snuggie, there are thousands of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pudding pies (“straight from the sewer to you!”).

About 2% of patents make their inventors money.

Myth 2: You can patent an idea or title.

Nope. Patents require full disclosure and an explanation of how the item supposedly works. Supposedly, you actually have to invent or discover something completely new, or at least improve on an existing patent…though as Myth #3 suggests, this doesn’t always hold true.

Myth 3: All patented items have been proven to work.

Ha. If that were the case, we’d be knee deep in perpetual motion machines. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, at least, doesn’t test the items patented. In fact, they’ll cheerfully admit that as many as 10% of the inventions they give patents to probably don’t work.

Myth 4: Edison patented the first light bulb, and it caught on in a flash!

Not only did Thomas Edison NOT invent the first light bulb–he just improved on it in 1879–it took forever to catch on. Even 10 years later, Edison only had 710 customers for his electric lamps. It took 46 years for just a quarter of Americans to adopt electric lighting.

Nowadays electrical lights are so heavily used you can trace the outlines of the inhabited continents from orbit, and see all our major cities based on the splashes they make against the dark. But no matter how amazing the technology is today, that doesn’t change the fact that the original patent wasn’t Edison’s.