This weekend my wife and I took in a movie. The film was preceded by a movie trailer touting a soon to be released production based on the invention of the “intermittent windshield wiper". Such a topic for a big budget Hollywood movie would seem to be awfully mundane. However, the trailer was a very interesting glimpse of a subject that has deep meaning for every entrepreneur, inventor or dreamer.
Robert Kearns was a university professor and an engineer with a passion for tinkering. He had lost the sight in one eye when a champagne cork had popped squarely into his eye. In 1963, while driving in a heavy rainstorm he noticed that the steady, constant pace of the wiper blades sweeping water from the windshield caused his sight to lose focus.
At that time windshield wipers only worked at a single rate of speed. As mist, or light rain occurred the driver had to manually tune off and on the unit to control the speed of the blades. Kearns had stumbled into an opportunity to address a fairly basic, but needed improvement to an already existing automobile safety feature.
At home in his workshop, Mr. Kearns created a prototype of his “intermittent windshield wiper" system. Once perfected, he filed for patents and began to approach the major American car companies seeking to license his invention. He demonstrated the unit for Chrysler and Ford, and provided each with proprietary data on his device. After internal discussion both advised Robert Kearns that his device was of no interest and they would pass on the opportunity to license.
Much to Mr. Kearns shock and chagrin, he was amazed to discover that in 1969 the Ford Motor Company began to sell an “intermittent windshield wiper" as a featured accessory on their new models. The technology was remarkably similar to his prior art. Thus began a legal odyssey that would consume Robert Kearns life, his fortune and his health.
This is where this tale has ongoing importance to anyone seeking to commercialize a new product or invention. The invention of the original mechanized windshield wiper was the birth of a “divergent product". The invention of the telephone, the television, the radio, or the internal combustion engine gave birth to “divergent products". They created alpha opportunities. The addition of color to televisions, answering machines to telephones and clocks to radios are examples of “convergent products". “Convergent products" are simple product enhancements that are often extremely valuable as wealth generators. Robert Kearns “intermittent windshield wiper" is a wonderful example of a “convergent product’.
He had not invented the windshield wiper but had created simple performance elements that motorists found would add safety, comfort and simplicity to driving in varied climatic conditions. Unfortunately, he had not fully insulated his invention from predatory commercial vultures.
Patent law is an extremely specific practice. There is a reason patent attorney's typically handle no other categories of legal work. The Kearns vs. Ford Motor Company patent suit was arduous and tortured. The patent law principal of “obviousness" was the center of the dispute. Ford claimed that the Kearns invention was “obvious", a device made up of pre-existing components. Simply put, Kearns argued that it was his organization of these elements that was truly novel and that his unit was not “obvious" until he invented it.
It took until 1995 for Robert Kearns to prevail. The case is considered a landmark. The instance of a single person taking on a huge, international corporate behemoth, and winning, was amazing, exciting and myth shattering. Ford paid Mr. Kearns $30 million. Robert Kearns spent $10 million on legal fees to fight the case to successful conclusion.
There are many lessons here for inventors seeking to commercialize their ideas and products.
Utilize Non-Disclosure Agreements
Seek professional legal assistance to file patents, trademarks, copyright
File Trade Secrets
Detail every meeting and phone call with a written re-cap to each
Save every dated receipt for FedEx, phone log, etc.
We look at hundreds of inventions and new product submissions each year in our consulting business. A fair percentage of these presentations have real commercial value and could be successfully marketed. Most however, will never see a store shelf because the creator will not take appropriate steps to protect and commercialize their opportunity.
Robert Kearns did. He had a simple idea for a “convergent product". He took appropriate steps to protect his invention. When he was ripped off, he took up the fight. Because of his success and courage, it is now much easier to fight and win against the “big guys".
Each of us sees or experiences opportunities almost everyday, in our work or personal environment. Most of us aren't paying attention or do not recognize opportunity when it appears. For the few that do, and have the courage to act, will be rewarded by a marketplace that craves new products and concepts.
I can not wait to see the movie.
Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.
After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B. A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance.
Geoff Ficke and his consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, Inc. (http://www.duquesamarketing.com ) has assisted businesses large and small, domestic and international, entrepreneurs, inventors and students in new product development, capital formation, licensing, marketing, sales and business plans and successful implementation of his customized strategies. He is a Senior Fellow at the Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Business School, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.