Do Patents motivate Inventors? A TED Talk by Dr. Kalyan Kankanala

Dr. Kalyan C. Kankanala, the founder of SiNApSE Blog, and a renowned IP Attorney and author, recently delivered a TEDX talk on ‘What Motivates Inventors? Patents, or Passion? This is the first ever TED Talk on patents from India. You can view the talk on YouTube at this link.

In his talk, Dr. Kalyan talks about the role patents play in incentivizing inventors. He concludes that patents do not motivate inventors directly, but bring patrons  in the form of investors. He also points out the difference between being an inventor and holding a patent, which do not necessarily mean the same. While upholding the value of the patent system for businesses, Dr. Kalyan concludes with thoughts on how inventors work and what systems are required to motivate them.

Like all his talks, Dr. Kalyan Kankanala’s talk is filled with interesting examples and statistics. For example, he talks about a patent on an apparatus for kicking butt, a patent on neutralizing flatulence, genetically modified glowing pig, etc. Dr. Kalyan also gives examples of power nappers like Edison, bathroom thinkers like Archimedes, etc. The  talk is short, but very thought provoking.

Please watch the video and send us your feedback. Critical comments are welcome.

For those who prefer to read, here is a script of the talk.

Obvious, Yet Non Obvious – Inventors, Inventions and Patents

We live in inventions, with inventions and around inventions.

This simple invention I carry with me is not just a tool for mobility, it is a symbol of independence and confidence. I cannot imagine life without it. I am so fascinated by its simplicity and utility that I decided to call the charitable trust we founded for the disabled as The Cane Foundation.

I rely so much on this invention every single day, but have never spared a thought for its inventor.

While preparing for this talk, I did some digging and learned that the cane was in existence for hundreds of years, and no one knows who invented it for the blind. That is in fact the case with many inventions we use daily. Do you know who invented the tooth brush you use? The shirt you wear?  The dosa you eat? The mattress you sleep on?

No. None of us know who invented these things. These were invented many many years ago and their inventors have been long forgotten.

Why do these inventors invent? What motivates them to create?

For Money?

For Recognition?

To Solve Problems?

By Accident?

To serve the society? Or

For Fun?

Intrigued by the question, we took up a study to understand what actually motivates inventors to invent. We interviewed about a thousand inventors in different domains ranging from electronics to biotechnology over a period of five years. The study gave us an opportunity to meet inventors with different backgrounds and personalities, and was a great learning experience to say the least.

The results of the study were very interesting and dispelled many of our assumptions.

Most inventors stated that the primary reason for them to invent is their love/passion to invent and desire to improve.

Though many of them pointed out that they would be happy to get recognition and money for their work, they were very clear that those factors did not incentivize them to invent.

When asked about patents, about ninety percent of them stated that patents play no role whatsoever.

Some of them even asked us: What exactly are patents?

As of 2012, several Indian inventors in manufacturing and other traditional sectors were not even aware that something called patents exist.

The study indicates that inventors in India are not really incentivized by the patent system.

Why then do we have a patent system in place? What purpose does it serve?

The primary objective of patent law is to promote the progress of science and technology for public good and industrial progress. It grants exclusive rights to inventors over their inventions for a limited period of time. The belief is that exclusive rights provide inventors the opportunity to gain commercial benefit, which in turn encourages them to invent. Another belief is that, the recognition granted through patents incentivizes inventors to invent.

Contrary to this belief, our study concludes that inventors are not motivated by financial rewards and recognition.

What then is the role of the patent system?

Many inventions need investments to test their validity and take them to the market. Simply put, inventions are a result of research and development, which requires money, and inventions, must be converted into products to reach the public, which again needs money.

For example, one report estimates that one drug requires at least five hundred million dollars of investment and 8-12 years of effort before it can hit the market.

While other inventions such as those in software, business methods, etc. require much less investment and time, it is a fact that inventions require investments to take them to the public. Conception is only the beginning of the process. Research, experimentation, testing, productization, and commercialization of an invention require investment.

Even the greatest of inventors like Archimedes, Leonardo, Cholini, Watt, etc., had patrons, who invested in their inventive work. If not for their patrons, these inventors would not have gone too far with their inventions.

Unless it is a charitable cause, most people will be interested in investing in inventions only if they can reap financial benefits from such investments. Patents provide the opportunity to gain such benefits and therefore, play an important role in incentivizing investment in creation and commercialization of inventions. Today, most technology driven businesses invest in inventions, and patents form an integral part of their business strategy.

Owing to their business integration, many people use patents to reflect their inventive capabilities.

For example, you will find many people introducing themselves as:

“Hi, I am ABC and I have ten patents on my name.”

Is this person saying that he is an inventor? Does holding a patent make one an inventor? Can you judge inventors by patents alone?

Slide – Patent Invalidity Statistics

As you can see on the screen, most patents granted are considered invalid. They are granted by mistake. The percentage varies from 50 and 60 percent in UK and USA to 73 and 83 percent in Japan and Germany.

Invalid patents simply mean that they do not possess inventions. So, obtaining and holding a patent does not necessarily mean that you are an inventor.

Also, holding a valid patent does not necessarily reflect inventorship.

Slide – An Apparatus for kicking butt

Here is a patent, which helps someone kick their own butt. The inventors claim that it is easy to operate and can kick your butt several times.

Why would someone want to kick their own butt? The company states that they do not know, but if someone wishes to do it for some reason, they have the product.

Slide – Beerbrella

The patent is self-explanatory. Why would someone need an umbrella over their beer? You can think of at least ten reasons.

To keep it cool;

To prevent adulteration; and so on.

Slide – Mouth Cage

This patent helps people cover their mouth and avoid overeating. An interesting one for those diet conscious ones.

Slide – Flatulence Deodorizer

Flatulence can make life hell. The effect can be devastating if you are in a closed environment along with the source of such flatulence. Like a car or a small conference room. This patent claims to help neutralize the consequences.

Slide – A method of swinging on a swing

This patent claims a method of swinging.

These are all patented, but are they actually inventions? I don’t think so.

The benchmark set by patent law for inventions is very low, and the fact that you have a patent does not necessarily mean that you have a worthy invention, or that you are an inventor.

Does, not holding a patent mean that you are not an inventor?

Slide – Genetically Modified Pig

However good it might be, this invention is not patentable in India because animals and plants are not patentable. Does that mean that the person, who came up with this is not an inventor?

Slide – Surgeon

Can a surgeon get a patent on his method?  No, because the invention is not patentable in India. But is he not an inventor?

Slide – A Process of improving work environment

Not patentable again. Is he not an inventor?

Slide – A method of sensitizing people about appropriate disability support

This invention on the other hand is patentable.

For various reasons ranging from social to economic, inventions are excluded from patentability. So, patents are indicators of only patentable inventions. Holding a patent does not necessarily mean that one is an inventor, and not holding one does not necessarily mean one is not.

Patents neither motivate inventors, nor establish unquestionable credibility.

Society needs inventions, Businesses need patents, and inventions need inventors.

From the tooth paste we use to the bed we sleep on, we live on inventions, and enjoy the fruits of inventions. We need inventions, and we need inventors to make those inventions.

How can we motivate inventors to create inventions?

Inventors invent because they love to invent, and you cannot inculcate in someone the love for inventing. That comes by virtue. You can only put systems in place to harness and harvest the love for inventing inventions.

How exactly do you do that?

One common factor that has proven to be useful is a Friendly Environment to invent and create.

But, the problem is that different inventors work differently.

Slide – Edison Napping

Some inventors like to sleep at work. Edison, Tesla and Leonardo used to take short naps while working.

Slide – Archimedes thinking in bath tub

Some inventors get ideas in bathrooms. The inventor of floppy disk, Nakamatsu, has a gold tiled bathroom, where he thinks. He holds more than three thousand patents.

Slide 3 – Benjamin Franklin with note pad

Some inventors are very organized, and go about inventing in a structured manner.

How do you create a friendly environment for all these inventors?

Among others, there are two common things about all inventors:

They are highly driven; and

Each inventor works differently.

Today’s rigid structures place psychological and physical restraints on inventors.

Those must be broken if we hope to see path breaking inventions.

For example, you cannot tell an inventor – Be in office by 9 AM, finish inventing, and leave by 5PM. DO NOT CARRY WORK HOME.

It just doesn’t work that way.

Thank you.



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