Every so often clients come into my office with horror stories about how they spent $10,000 or more on a company that claims they will patent your invention, produce a commercial for you, develop your product, and license it out to some big company. They tend to use flashy television ads and nice glossy folders with a lot of promises.
The problem is that, at least in my experience, I have run across numerous such companies that have done nothing for their clients, but lots of horror stories about missed patent filing deadlines (killing your ability to obtain a patent) and tons of money spent on nothing. In every case, the consultation involved a person having little money or on a fixed income. In one extreme case, a couple who couldn't afford the fees was paying $250/month to one of these invention promoters, all they could afford, and received nothing for it . . . for five years.
A Real Scenario
Recently, a person called me up because he was looking for a lawyer to represent him before going to one of these invention promoters. They told him, "You don't need a lawyer - we have a team of lawyers who will represent you!" Luckily, he was wiser than that because who would represent him with the scam artists?
Here's what happened - this nice retired gentleman on a fixed income spent $1,200 for a market research and a patentabily search. His idea was a broad concept, changed here for confidentiality reasons, but something like, "a chemical to spray on snow and melt it." Had this nice gentleman come to me for a consultation, I would have asked a lot of questions at the outset starting with, "What chemical?" The answer, as it turned out, was that he had no idea. I would have told him, "Go to the American Chemical Society and start talking to experts in the field, first. There's nothing here to patent yet." In fact, this is what I told him.
Anyway, after waiting 40 minutes past the scheduled meeting for the scam artist, err... invention promoter to meet with us, it started with a very nasty, "I'm not meeting with you" followed by the mutual client saying, "he's my lawyer, he's with me." He left us the $1,200 book and whisked away, which was a silly move because he gave me time to review it before he could give us the marketing pitch.
The $1,200 Boiler Plate Book
So this book from the invention promoter, which, as is typical, cost $1,200, was pretty much like every one of these that I've seen from these scam artists: 95% boiler plate information which you can find on Wikipedia, 4% generic patent references having nothing to do with the "invention", and a paragraph or two about the problem to be solved. (in this case, it also included a picture of a spray can and a paragraph about my client's person bio information, having nothing to do with a patent search.)
Being a patent attorney, I immedietely jumped to the patentability opinion. It was signed by a patent agent - she should be disbarred. A patent practitioner is NOT allowed to work under a non-lawyer and must have a direct engagement and directly bill the client they are doing the work for. Further, the search did not mention whatsoever what was being searched, what class and subclass were searched at the patent office, and why the results found were relevant. In short, they went to Google Patents and printed off four references, and slapped the standard letter on top.
Finally Meeting With the Salesman
When we got into the office, I decided to just listen. He proceeded to read about "the problem to be solved." To give it credit, this was actually better than I expected because it mentioned "carbon tetroflouride" as an example of a spray, which was a nice big word. The rest was generalized garbage. Problem was: a) it wasn't searched whatsoever in the patent search, b) if it existed, there's nothing to protect, and therefore nothing to license. When I asked the salesman about this (because, that's all he is, as soon became apparent - ), he had no idea why that was there or if it would work, and said he couldn't answer about patentability, not being a patent attorney. Which, incidentily, is the reason why what they're doing is against the law since the client never gets to disucss with a ptent practitioner. It's also common sense - if there's no one to ask about how you're going to make the product, then what, exactly are you going to sell?
Now, this salespitch guy was not to be deterred - he jumped into how they were going to market the product for only - $8000! The first step, he said, was to make a TV commercial. Problem #1: He had previously told my client that they'd cover all the costs . . . the client just needed to pay for the $1200 evaluation. Oops. Problem #2: Ever try and buy airtime on a TV station? It costs waaaayyy more than that. Problem #3: How in the world are you going to make a commerical for a product that is not yet developed?
I attacked with problem #3 first . . . answer: "Oh, we're going to do development and marketing, all together." That's not what he said and he hadn't a clue what "carbon tetroflouride" was, as I found out earier (see above). Meanwhile, he didn't even mention patenting - if you put a TV commercial on the air, that is a public disclosure of your invention! You have now lost the ability to patent it in many countries around the world, and will start the clock running to patent it in the Untied States within the year. Marketing, as anyone with common sense would be able to deduce, comes after filing the patent application, which in turn, comes after development (in general with some overlap, sometimes).
Conclusion / How to Recognize a Scam
There are no shortcuts. If someone tells you, "I can develop, patent, and market your idea" and wants $10,000, they are almost certainly a scam artist. They prey on people's desire to make it rich and people's own self-confidence about their ideas. They are in a position of trust, looking official, but will never make you money - only themselves.
Here's the difference between what's more likely to be a reputable person versus more likely to be a scam artist in the "invention industry":
- A reputable person will take it step by step and specialize in one area; a scam artist will promise to do everything.
- A reputable person will give you substance; a scam artist will talk in nice-sounding generalities and shroud himself behind alleged people with more knowledge whom you have no access to.
- A reputable person will have verifable samples of their work product and people you can call or look up as references; a scam artist will have lots of flashy advertising speaking to your desires, while being sparse on any work product you've ever heard of or is verifiably successful.
- A reputable licensing agent will charge you a "seriousness fee" of $0 to $300 and take a 1/3 to 1/2 royalty, making money only if you make money; a scam artist will want lots of money up front and make money even if you lose money.
- A reputable patent practitioner will tell you how he searched, tell you what he searched, and if really professional, provide a detailed discussion and analysis of references uncovered, and be able to show you his issued patents; a scam arist will give you a list of patents with no discussion whatsoever and will often somehow always be located on the other side of the country from where you are, and/or have no real office.
- A reputable marketing firm will talk about various modes of advertisement and show you samples with their successes and discuss in detail with you various ways you could go, each having pros and cons; a scam artist will tell you to move forward regardless.
Don't get scammed. If you've been scammed, there's usually not too much you can do, but if you have more questions, call me.
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