Sunday, June 19, 2005

"Patents don't really matter"

from Lara Youngs, Charlotte Observer:

While visiting Infinity's End one day, Gary McLemore came up with an unusual fashion statement.

Seeing many customers with piercings, he came up with the idea for sunglass lenses that attach to eyebrow rings and flip up for indoor wear.

Wondering if the plan was marketable, the 40-year-old sales trainee at Hughes Supply visited the studios of WTVI-TV (Channel 42) PBS 5 on Saturday for an audition that drew more than 100 would-be inventors. Eventually, the concept will become a fall television show that follows final contestants on their quest to have their dream become reality.

Produced by WTVI and Bouncing Brain Productions, Saturday's free audition melded the concepts of "American Idol" and "Antiques Roadshow." Those who made the initial cut pitched their ideas to a panel of judges to decide whether each concept should be developed, marketed and sold.

Unfortunately for McLemore, someone had already developed and patented an almost identical concept.

"It was sad, but I wasn't surprised," he said. Later, he added, "At least I didn't go to a patent lawyer and spend a lot of money."

The panel of four judges included Charlotte patent attorney Chad Tillman of Tillman Ivsan PLLC, as well as three members of area design firm Enventys, who included Louis Foreman, CEO; Managing Partner Matthew Wynn; and Ian Kovacevich, vice president of engineering and design.

Tillman said the auditions allowed people to learn more about complicated patent law and revealed how difficult it is to get something marketed.

"I can't tell you how many people get a patent and think they're going to get rich," he said.

While some turned up with just a sketch or concept, others had done research and test runs of their products.

Charlotte neighbors Deborah Mance -- who flew back from a business trip in Los Angeles to attend -- and Pam Hester brought a possible solution to a common scrapbooking problem. It cleared the judges' cut.

Both women said finishing scrapbook pages can be a long process and pieces can be scattered and lost.

Along with friend Mary LaValley, who could not attend, they created a binder called "Designs on Hold." Each scrapbook page can be designed on the binder and a magnetic sheet put down over it to keep everything in place.

Eleven pitches eventually got the green light from judges.

Michael Cable, executive producer for BBP, said the crew didn't know what to expect, but was impressed.

"Charlotte's a cool city, but I didn't know there were this many entrepreneurial minds," he said. He said the number of finalists was not predetermined because they weren't sure how many ideas would be successful.

Some at the audition were already successful inventors.

Chuck Foley, the 74-year-old inventor of the popular Milton Bradley game Twister, brought with him "The Shredder," which allows shredded pictures and letters to be put back together as a puzzle.

The Charlotte resident said patents don't really matter -- what matters is finding a manufacturer who can think out of the box.

"If you swat at it, it will never fly," he said. "If you show it to the people, they'll buy it."


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