The blurred inventor
Article | December 30, 2022
The blurred inventor
The blurred inventor
For most inventors, the patenting process is a foreign concept that is confusing, complex, and divorced from the underlying development of the technology of an invention. Part of this confusion can arise from the inventor’s “blurred vision” of their invention – they often cannot perceive the full extent of their inventiveness. This article is written from my perspective and experience as a patent attorney and aims to shed some light on why this blurred vision exists.
A patent is a legal instrument that protects technology and sits at the interface of the legal world and technology. To prepare a patent specification, the details of the technology need to be understood, distilled and translated into the legal world. This process often requires close collaboration between an inventor and a patent attorney.
As a patent attorney, one of the joys of the job is meeting inventors and collaborating with them to learn about their inventions and understand why they embarked on their journey of invention. The story of each inventor and invention is unique, yet there are common threads amongst them. One common theme that I observe, time and time again, is that the inventor underestimates and understates their invention.
The process of invention rarely happens in a vacuum as an invention is typically developed to solve a problem. Even truly transformative technologies are created to solve a problem: the Wright brothers solved the problem of aerodynamic control; lightbulbs were developed to address issues with candles and oil lamps for illumination; engines were developed to solve issues of manpower; the internet was developed to address communication problems.
For an inventor to invent, they need to see and think about the world differently to others. It is this different world view that enables them to see what hasn’t yet been seen and develop new solutions. Sometimes this different viewpoint is because they have enough wisdom and understanding to go against the status quo and try something new. Other times it is – and I say this with the utmost respect – a level of ignorance that prevents established thinking from clouding new approaches to solving a problem. Sometimes inspiration for an invention is so tangential to the invention itself it cannot always be rationalised until after the fact. A good example of this is an inventor taking inspiration from a field so far removed from the field of the invention it beggars belief that there is anything in common with the fields, yet afterwards the link between the fields is so clear that it is remarkable that the link wasn’t made earlier.
When looking to solve a particular problem, it’s common that several sub-problems need to be solved along the way. Think of these sub-problems as ‘speed bumps’. The solutions to overcoming these speed bumps often end up being inventions separate to the main invention, but they tend to be forgotten by the inventor during their invention journey. This is not surprising because the goal of the inventor isn’t to simply overcome the speed bumps but to solve the main problem, and I think it is human nature to forget or downplay the difficulties in reaching our goals.
Many times, when trying to understand an invention, I often end up having a dialogue with an inventor to understand their speed bumps going along the following lines:
“Did you have any problems in coming up with this design?”
“Not really, though we did have to change some components a bit”
“What do you mean by a ‘bit’ and why did you have to change it?”
“Well, we had to design a totally new component from scratch because [XX], which meant we now have a new way of doing [YY]. Actually, we spent a significant amount of time designing the new component and it was more difficult than first though”
“This new component, does it have uses other than with your invention?”
“Probably… Actually, thinking about it, it would be pretty useful for [ZZ], but we aren’t focused on that as our invention relates to something different and the component is only a pretty small part of our invention”
From a patenting and commercialisation perspective, there can be a lot of value associated with the solutions to these speed bumps. In the above example, the new component may have a greater commercial value than the main invention, especially if the new component can be used in different technical areas. However – and this is by no means a ‘failing’ of an inventor – inventors tend to fail to understand this value.
We shouldn’t be surprised that inventors fail to understand the value in the solutions to the speed bumps. After all, inventors are usually laser-focused on overcoming the main problem, and speed bumps are just distractions along the way. This is perhaps the first reason why the journey of invention becomes understated – “minor” problems and their solutions, which are actions of value creation, tend to be overlooked, especially if they are tangential to the main invention. This view is ultimately a consequence of tunnel vision when trying to solve a problem. In my previous life before being a patent attorney I worked in a research lab on industry-based projects, so the tunnel vision is all too familiar.
A second reason why inventors may underestimate and understate their solutions comes from their perception of the world. Those working in a specialist technical field often assume that everyone working in the same or similar field has the same level of knowledge and understanding. However, inventors see things others don’t even if they have the same knowledge and understanding as those around them – an inventor must have an expertise that is above and beyond the average otherwise how can they invent. This can make it difficult for the inventor to separate what is known and trivial from what is inventive as it can be hard to understand how others can’t see the same thing as the inventor … especially because everything is obvious after the fact.
This way of thinking is not limited to inventors. Studies have shown that experts, regardless of their technical area, typically don’t know how well-informed and knowledgeable they are as they tend to believe that everyone else is as knowledgeable as them, if not more so. This underestimation is often referred to as the ‘Inverse Dunning-Kruger’ effect. Simply put, experts tend to downplay their skills and knowledge. This downplaying of abilities helps to explain why inventors can underestimate and understate the problems they solved, the solutions they arrived at, and what people in the technology area knew. I did the same thing when I was a researcher.
I also think that underestimation of inventions by inventors helps to explain why it can be difficult for organisations to identify and manage trade secrets as those creating the secrets don’t realise what secrets they’ve created. After all, how can something be a secret if the perception is that others already know the ‘secret’?
For a patent attorney, having an insight into how an inventor sees the world helps us to better strip back the layers to work out what inventions have been created – and in the case of trade secrets, what secrets exist in an organisation – where the true value of an invention lies. This article hopefully sheds some light on the matter. And for inventors, it may also help to explain why patent attorneys can ask what appear to be some simple and obvious questions during the process of preparing a patent application.