“In America, the ordinary meets the extraordinary every day,” Bradley Cooper’s character remarks to Jennifer Lawrence’s title character in an acclaimed film that recently earned Jennifer Lawrence an Oscar nomination. The movie, Joy, loosely based on a true story, chronicles the inventor, Joy Mangano, as she overcomes financial and family difficulties to become a bold and ingenious businesswomen who ultimately builds a multi-million dollar enterprise and obtains over a hundred patents. Joy, with a little bit of Hollywood magic, personifies the American dream – an individual who, in a flash of brilliance, creates a life-altering invention, and then profits immensely. Throughout the movie, the audience is convinced that Joy’s success hinges on the commercial success of her “magic mop” invention. But just like previous movies about well-known inventors, such as Flash of Genius and The Social Network, intellectual property misappropriation inevitably arises and threatens Joy’s livelihood.The problems that Joy faces are simply all too common among individual inventors and start-up companies. For instance, it is common to incorrectly conclude that once you make a product and it is profitable in the marketplace, you will have no intellectual property problems.
The ability to obtain a patent for a new and useful invention is a fundamental right specified in Article I, Clause 8, Section 8 of the United States Constitution. The U.S. government awards patents to encourage individuals and companies to make inventive technological contributions to society in exchange for a 20-year exclusive period of ownership of the invention. This exclusive right provides inventors legal protection against others who may wish to employ the same invention. However, a patent only grants the right to exclude others from using, making, or selling the invention. It does not guarantee the inventor the right to make a product based on his or her own invention.
Possessing a right to exclude others from using an invention enables individual inventors and start-up companies to even the playing field and compete with larger or more established incumbent businesses. Additionally, if the start-up company grows into a more established business, holding a patent for its invention provides future protection against other emerging competitors.Many inventors often overlook the fact that possessing a patent can help secure more funding from investors, increase the value of their business, and potentially provide an additional source of revenue through licensing arrangements.
Conversely, patents can also inhibit the success of individual inventors and start-ups by creating barriers to commercialize their products. Even if one possesses a patent for her invention, the inventor may be unable to make a product using their invention if an aspect of the product infringes a patent owned by someone else. This scenario forces the inventor to pay for a license or engage in litigation to prove that their product does not infringe the other patent. This can be especially problematic for inventors who, like Joy, are already struggling to make ends meet and cannot afford the financial costs and risks associated with litigation and licensing. Engaging in short-term, cost-conscious behavior like failing to perform an analysis of existing patents relevant to their product or taking advice from those unfamiliar with patent law can have catastrophic repercussions.
Learning from Joy’s mistakes, individual inventors and start-up companies should prioritize and allocate funds for protecting their inventions. They should perform a study of the relevant prior art, protect their innovations by creating and filing high-quality patent applications, and establish an effective patent enforcement and defense strategy specific to the technology being pursued by the start-up. For start-up companies, patent diligence is a necessity, not a luxury.