My post in response to Bob Parks piece for Bloomberg Businessweek, The Greatest Running Shoe Never Sold and my comment left on the article comment thread received a very thoughtful response from the author. In my comment I had mentioned the parallels to the story of Bob Kearns, inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, as depicted in the movie Flash of Genius. Kearns alleged that the Ford Motor Company stole his idea, and spent most of his adult life in pursuit of a courtroom admission of that from Ford. Mr. Parks pointed out that the movie was based on a first-rate piece by John Seabrook originally published in the New Yorker in 1993, something that I was not aware of. A bit of searching online revealed a copy of the story, and it’s well worth reading. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
In his comment, Mr. Parks makes a great point about the difficulty of the relationship between the independent innovator and a large corporation:
… one component of this tale is the culture clash between the independent inventor and the corporation. It’s a divide that can distort the communication channels between people with the best intentions.
It seems like a Lenn Rockford Hann or a Bob Kearns might have had limited knowledge of how a large corporation might work or think, or even what their motivations might have been. A direct negotiation between either of them and a corporation seems as though it was doomed to failure before it began.
The Seabrook piece The Flash of Genius, covers a lot of ground, and is a fascinating peek into the murky world of patents and patent law. It was particularly unfortunate that Bob Kearns first approached Ford, a company whose culture was very much infused with a disdain for patents or licensing in almost any form, beginning with the founder, Henry Ford:
Ford thought that the patent system should be abolished, because, he said, it “produces parasites, men who are willing to lay back on their oars and do nothing,” and because patents afford “opportunities for little minds, directed by others more cunning, to usurp the gains of genuine inventors–for pettifoggers to gain a strategic advantage over honest men, and, under a smug protest of righteousness, work up a hold-up game in the most approved fashion.”
I cannot recommend too highly setting aside the hour or so it will take to make it through Seabrook’s meticulously researched piece. It has great resonance today, given the many Patent Trolls that seem to be gaming a flawed system. (Google “Lodsys” for a recent example)