How to Manage your Creative Work and Intellectual Property Online

It is with a hard heart that I write this post today. It has come to our attention that a design, The Pocket Light by Hyun Jin Yoon & Eun Hak Lee (Ryan Harc), was stolen, produced and sold unlicensed under another brand. The team at Yanko Design does not condone such activities and urge all readers to boycott any pocket light they may encounter. If you recollect, this light-design had gone viral on the net and had garnered much attention from the online community in 2008.

ORIGINAL POCKET LIGHT

intellectual_light

COPY OF THE POCKET LIGHT

intellectual_light2

Moving forward, we could speculate 101 ways how and why Ryan Harc’s design was stolen, but ultimately it does not matter. What really matters is the fallout of such a situation, the impact of it on the designers and the design industry.

In many ways the Internet is a new medium when it comes to the management of intellectual property. Many designers are still struggling to reconcile its power of reach versus control of information flow. Here are some of my thoughts on managing creative content on the Internet.

1) Managing Expectations

Whenever a design is shown to the public there is a chance it could get ripped off. Design awards, graduation shows, public critiques, discussions with model makers, even obtaining costing for prototypes are all possible avenues where a design could get stolen.

The Internet is no different. In fact, because of the power of the Internet’s reach, the chance could be higher. However I do find it interesting that designers take more precautions showing work at graduation shows or manufacturers than on the Internet.

This being said, I have to say that the case of the copied Pocket Light happens rarely, especially if the stolen design was just a concept. The reason because the additional work required in taking a concept to an actual product requires far more effort than just coming up with an idea. In many cases it is very difficult to do if the designer that came up with the idea is not part of the development team.

That’s why people often tend to rip off finished products like LV bags or Vertu phones. All the hard work has already been done, all you need to do is just reverse engineer it. Oh, and there is that brand element as well.

So how or why did the Pocket Light get stolen? My guess is that it was “The Perfect Storm”. So happens that a manufacturer or a brand had access to all the right ingredients and be in a position to take up that idea and convert it quickly and easily into a product. In my opinion it was just sheer bad luck on the part of Ryan Harc.

2) So then why would anyone want to post his or her designs on the Internet?

There are actually a number of reasons, but the trick here is making sure you figure out “why?” before you do so.

The first and most common reason is credibility. Budding designers or design studios looking to make a name for themselves often share online self initiated design projects with the aim of getting their talent discovered.

If this were your objective, then getting a design copied would then fall in the realm of “imitation is the best form of flattery.” It is unfortunate, but consider milking it for all its worth.

The next reason designers publish designs online is that they are looking for a job. Most of the time these designs are portfolio work that have already been introduced in the market. However there are designers that would include personal design projects or submissions to design competitions hoping to show potential employers the breath of their talent.

The final last two reasons are closely link. That is, designers intending to sell a product or the rights to a design for production. If this is indeed your objective, you should ensure that you have taken the relevant intellectual property protection like patents or design registrations.

An important thing to note is that these 4 points are mutually exclusive. You cannot hope to “gain credibility” and also aim to “sell your design”. Both require different mindsets, and to combine the two is a recipe for disappointment.

3) So what can we do to protect ourselves?

I’m no expert on intellectual property, but by understand the gist of what it can do for you widens your options. Do research the details of Utility Patents, Design Registrations and Trademarks at your nearest Intellectual Property Office as soon as you can.

But for the purpose of this discussion, let us look at IP more from a strategic angle; is IP really needed for what you want to do?

An old employer of mine has this policy on patents. If an idea or invention could be licensed to another party for royalties, then it is worth taking the effort to get a patent. Why is this so? It makes perfect sense when you look at patents from a business point of view.

In certain cases the cost for a patent could come in at USD $30,000-50,000(for a worldwide coverage) or more. This does not include things like patent searches, legal fees and other incidentals. So if you look at it from an ROI (Return on Investment) perspective it just doesn’t not make sense. More so when you consider that most patents are applied on inventions before they are even launched or market proven.

I’m not saying don’t patent your idea. If you think you have a killer idea or invention, then you should really consider investing in a patent. The hard part is figuring out if the idea is really worth it.

Now this comes to the next part of the patent equation. Lets say you managed to pull together $30,000 and got yourself a patent. You now have peace of mind. You launch your product and it becomes a small success. The success is small enough that you don’t rest on your laurels but big enough for the rest of the world to take notice that it is now market proven. Soon cheap imitations start to flood the market while you are struggling to grow your business. The question now is do you have the financial muscle or just simply the willpower to enforce your patent?

Many inventors I have spoken to shared with me that patents are really just for a peace of mind. In certain cases they are useful, in other times, too much of a good thing. At the end of the day the decision is really yours but be aware of what it can do for you, and weigh the pros and cons of that hefty investment.

4) So what shall we do now?

Let me now share with you 4 suggestions on what I think designers can do, considering the landscape I have outlined above.

a) Share it, Get famous and Move on.
Most designers would fall under this category. So when you share designs, you do it to share and celebrate the cleverness of the idea. You may also do it for karma, and in the hope that by sharing, karma comes back to you as fame and maybe even fortune. But at the end of the day you are realistic, you expect nothing in return and quickly move on to the next big idea you come up with.

b) Make it, Share it, Sell it, and Get Out!
One thing about patents they never talk about is that it can be circumvented. There is no guarantee that someone will not takes your idea, modify it and sell it as a better alternative. So one way to play it is that if you think you have a good idea and want to capitalize on it; then a way to do it is to make your money and get out.

ipoor T-Shirt - Design Sojourn

I planned my iPoor T-Shirt project with this strategy in mind. I knew the idea had merit, but with the product being a T-Shirt with a simple silkscreen graphic, I knew anyone could easily copy it. So I hatched a plan to make the iPoor T-Shirt in limited quantities and once it sold out, I’m out of the game. This strategy also forces you to ensure costs, margins and return on investment all work they way you want it.

c) Share it to Stake your Claim to the World.
I’m sure you can relate to my situation. I’m an employed designer, struggling to make ends meet, but I have ideas and some savings to invest in it. So how can I leverage on the power of the Internet to help me? I know I can’t afford a patent, so what do I do? I share it and stake my claim to the world, and if the design gets ripped off people will hopefully “do the right thing”.

Spaces for Ideas Sketchbook : Design Sojourn

My Spaces for Ideas Sketchbook is one such project, where by engaging my readers for feedback and getting them to be part of the development process, I hope to build a following of people that have a strong relationship with the product. Furthermore, by showing my process and prototype, there is no doubt as who came up with the idea first and when.

As a side note, the final design has not been revealed as it is in the process of getting a Design Registration. This is an alternative to a patent and not as expensive. Did I mention to Google Design Registrations?

d) Go under the Radar
My last suggestion does depend on the nature of your product, design or invention. Akin to much of the things you will find on Etsy, going “under the radar” means you build a design so niche, unusual to make, or not inline to existing standard processes that it becomes difficult to copy.

The Un-p3 MP3 Project: Design Sojourn

My Un-p3 Mp3 project was an experimental project aimed at exploring unusual manufacturing or creation processes with consumer electronics. A prominent design magazine in China was interested in showcasing this project, particularly on how I came up with the idea and built it. Needless to say I was not too keen.

—–

I’m sure there are many more strategies or things you can do, for example creating a unique brand, but I think many of them are out of the reach of the small organization. Regardless I look forward to your feedback and also any of your own ideas and suggestions you may have.

I like to leave you with a few closing words. Despite your best plans, and perhaps even a patent, designs or inventions are never 100% safe. It could get ripped off anywhere, even in your own design studio. But take heart with something someone once told me: People can copy our ideas, but they can never copy how we came up with them.

———-

Brian is a multidisciplinary industrial design leader that goes under the pseudonym of “The Design Translator”. He muses about the art of design leadership and the business of strategic industrial design over at his website Design Sojourn. He often laments the lack of good soy mochas and Italian pizzas (with Rocket and shredded Parma ham) in Asia.

36 Comments

  • littleoslo says:

    i have seen the pocket light on ebay everywhere. i thought it was the same product produced by the orginal designer but then they come with differnt brands. -.-

    • Radhika Seth says:

      Apparently not!
      What you see on ebay is the rip-off, the original is in prototype but not into production!

      • Ark-kun says:

        I’d like to play devil’s advocate:

        Too good there weren’t intellectual property rights until recently. Or else the wheel would still be “in prototype” and all other implementations would be banned. The same would be with the concept of a real light bulb that the designer in question just ripped off.

        Protecting idea so that the author can recover R&D costs by selling the product is fine. But protecting an idea and being dog in the manger is against my sense of ethics.

  • littleoslo says:

    yes i know those are rip-off

  • Anoying, at least he can prove his origination/ first showing on the internet. Lets hope it helps him get noticed at least.

  • Jack Cundy says:

    I’m an IP attorney and echo your sentiments that IP is a vital consideration if a designer wants to monetise (horrible term) the design.

    Never be afraid of seeking advice. My firm will always give a first 1/2 hour consult free of charge and this is the same for many other firms too.

    Although patents can become expensive, you would only go for global protection if you knew you had a successful product (and hence the funds to back it up). You are at no stage committed to unmanageable costs.

    More importantly, designs protection (to cover aesthetic aspects rather than functional aspects) is much more affordable.

  • IPR is an interesting topic. Whenever people think about protecting their ideas the first thing that springs to mind is a patent. Patents are not always the best form of protection though… especially for design.

    A patent will firstly cost a huge amount of money, typically no less than tens of thousands. They take years to secure and even once you have a patent it does not guarantee protection as anyone has the right to challenge it. More importantly, a patent can only protect a product or idea from the view of its function, i.e. how it works. It does not protect design!

    The key to patents is innovation and uniqueness. In order for something to be patented the idea cannot already be in the public domain (i assume this is to do with proofs and how it would work if you suddenly patent something that many people might already be using). In the US the person who came up with the idea has the patent right. In the UK the first person to apply for the patent has the right. So, if you are considering going down the patent route… be carefull what you disclose before submitting your application.

    Of course when you design something it is classed as IP. In many countries (i only really know about the UK and US) copyright is free and automatic and design right is free and automatic but can be registered to provide firmer protection. These forms of protection are for ideas and designs (not functions). Anything written, be it a business idea, a concept… almost anything is automatically copyrighted (or designrighted) to the author (unless a contractual clause negates this). As long as you can proove you had it first then you have a case. One of the best ways to do this (and one that does stand well in courts) is to write it down on paper and post it to yourself and DO NOT open the envelope when you get it. Just store it somewhere safe. The fact that you then have this sealed in an envelope with a dated post mark on is good!

    The internet, as you can imagine, makes issues like this considerably more complicated as it is difficult to show exactly when the content was published and to prove that it has not been tampered with since.

  • Nick Wade says:

    I think you raise some good points around karma. If you’re aim is to get into the spotlight, then talent tends to get recognised – but to leave a good idea floating around for all to see is just bad business if you don’t cash in on it. I don’t think designers necessarily make for good business people – it’s not a place for ideals.

    Anyways… do you think your t-shirt is ripping off Apple?

  • Like most things it’s a catch 22, put your ideas online and you may be ripped off or discovered.
    Keep your ideas safe and noone will ever know about it unless you can produce and sell it yourself.

    I’m not putting my ideas online unless they are registered (somewhere else first. But that makes it hard for me to have a decent online portfolio.

  • Brian, Michael: You both raise sound points. I have a bunch of patents, a few sucessful products and the simple fact is that if you do not have the will or the bankroll to defend a patent then it is of so-so importance. Patents that have real value in general are about cornerstone technologies or applications of the technologies and relate to markets or products that can have the economic impact to support their inital and long term cost.

    There are inexpensive ways of protecting your idea for a short period of time, the provisional patent application is one. The PPA give’s you a year to prepare a full patent application, during that time your “patent pending” with the implied protection that grants. The non disclosure agreement is also part of the plan, much less protective but it helps.

    The key elopement here to remember is the road from idea to production and marketing is long and expensive, and for many concepts not worth the effort. The other element is that “unique” is in the eye of the beholder, you may think it’s totally fresh but in reality something quite similar was likely done years or decades ago.

    If your a budding designer, your better off presenting a concept to a high profile forum like Yanko where if your design is “ripped off” (and that’s a harsh term as your new concept may have been thought of long ago) you will be able in your portfolio point to it and say “this one was good enough to be stolen”, trust me that carries weight with any employer.

    Did the company that “ripped off” the pocket light do wrong, not in a legal sense but in a moral one. They saw a product concept that was unprotected and decided to take a shot, or they said “hey billy didn’t you have that idea a few months ago? Look at the readers comments and traction its got, maybe its worth a shot after all.”.

    In the end, if you have something you and other feel is real valuable, protect it, for the rest go ahead and publish it here. What you get by publishing here is a real critique of the concept and presentation as well as some exposure to your abilities to the world. There is no such thing as bad publicty its said, as long as they spell your name right.

    cheers
    zippy

    • Marv says:

      As to what Michael pointed out, IP is indeed a very interesting topic and as I noticed, most designers are clueless about what exactly is IP. It’s crucial for a designer who sought to protect his design to know what sort of IP right they should be looking at.

      The main categories of IP are Patent Right (Utility Patent), Industrial Design Right (Design Patent), Copyright, Trademarks, Geographical Indications and IC Layout Designs.

      Only those who came out with an NEW (novel) invention should file for Patent Right. As for designers, most of them should come under Industrial Design Right or Design Patent as what it is termed under USPTO. A design patent doesn’t involve any invention or functionality of a product. It’s just a mere protection of the ornamental (asthetical) design of a functional item.

      The Non Disclosure Agreement come in handy as a patent required that it should not be disclose to the public. This agreement normally is between the inventor and the IP consultant or the Product Developer during the stage where the inventor needs to develop a working prototype or a proof of concept while at the same time, preparing for the filing of patent.

      Another thing about patent is that most people tend to get the idea that if the design is patented, it would mean that they would have the right to it in the whole world. But, sadly there is no such thing as international patent. A patent filed in the US would only give the right in US alone. Designer might opt for PCT patent application thru WIPO (which granted the designer 30 months grace period for international patent filing in individual country) but still, applications should be made in individual country should the designer desire his design to be protected.

      Honestly speaking, patent is not for everyone. The issue of ‘ripped off’ design or ‘knocked off’ product is kind of inevitable. Imagine a company that spend thousands or even millions of dollars in R&D and their design just got ripped off like that.. I would agree that it is morally a disgrace. At least, a credit to the original designer.

    • ryan harc says:

      Your comment encourages us a lot. We are ryan + harc … the designers in the article. When we firstly know that pocket light was stolen, we were really frustrated. Pissed off. Now at least we know how important it is to get a patent. Frankly it is impossible to get patent for every items we designed. We just talk to each other as you told, pocket light probably good enough to be ripped off. And we pay more attention than before not to be copied…

  • Jonah says:

    It has been copied because it has been a very long time without offering a product to sell.

    I bought one on dealextreme.com. The quality is not great and the light is not powerful enough but nice design…

  • VoReason says:

    This just goes to show that he should haver produced it first. Fortune favors the quick and the bold.

    It was a good idea, it was a fun idea, its useless, but it is fun, so the public wants it. As far as I am concerned, he should have gone to production quicker.

    Copyright laws are useless, he should have patented it. If he did, law suit, otherwise, too bad, so sad.

  • Evan says:

    Go to thinkgeek.com they sell it there. it looks like the original are you sure they didn’t sign the rights away? http://www.thinkgeek.com/gadgets/lights/cbd4/

  • Marv says:

    I was wondering, is there by any chance that YD can assist the designers who shared their designs over in YD in securing a Creative Commons Licenses?

    http://creativecommons.org/

  • lord chino says:

    I’m so upset about this that I created a spambot to constantly spam their forms as well as their shopping cart. Let’s see if they make a delivery of 400 to a Fyuck Yu (c/o: Rick James) of Mailongdong, Africa.

  • fronten says:

    no wonder; by a look at the hefty price tag of $159 for this light. sure, you designers always want your work to be ‘art’ and therefore ‘expensive’, but.. there is a ‘but’ involved.

  • Tyson says:

    Zippyflounder made a very good point with regards to provisional patent applications. A provisional patent application is a much cheaper way to go if you are thinking about trying to get a patent.

    You have a year from the date you filed your provisional application to file a non-provisional application. The non-provisional application is what the Patent Office examines and decides whether to issue a patent.

    Basically, the provisional patent application gives you a year to market your invention and the opportunity to place “patent pending” on your invention’s material.

    I would be happy to answer any IP related questions that anyone has.

  • Martin says:

    There is a great 2 part article on Embody3D about intellectual property and industrial design here:

    http://embody3d.com/2010/01/14/intellectual-property-and-industrial-design-part-1/

    I think readers of this article will find it really valuable!

  • Bobby says:

    well … most likely the copy issue happens a lot in a particular region of Asia where mfg is vibrant …

    Mfg it probably would have issues as people would start copying it as all the mfg components would be readily available and they could just duplicate a “similar” type of the product.

    Sometimes they don’t even have to copy … they just take the finished product they’ve produce and sell it behind their back doors even b4 the product hits the market …

    i’m a mfg … the laws here are quite different … besides doing a “stunt” like the above only creates trust issues and most probably you can only perform it once …

  • duanmuren says:

    well, I’m a chinese designer. Guess what, those pocket lights are sold with just 1.8RMB in chinese market, and I’m really sick of it, and I’m wondering that why can’t they just make some fresh stuffs with their own mind, I mean, to design!
    My boss often tell me “please give some kind of these things” with his finger pointing to pictures of his competitor’s products! Oh fuck it~!

  • Confucius says:

    Nice post Chris, I have been expecting this.

    Where to start…
    By posting any new design on Yanko or any site, for kudos, or part of a comp, online portfolio etc, you are running the risk of plagiarism. Its a give in. To bad so sad as ‘VoReason’ has said: if your design gets stolen. I know it leaves a big lump in your throat with anger that it happens. I would be pissed too, but you have to understand that by posting your ideas and not following them through promptly, you are essentially forfeiting them to the rest of the world. Deal with it.
    There are literally hundreds of concepts on here that have viable market potential. Its inevitable that its going to happen. You don’t think designers are the only ones perusing this site do you? Wake up, manufacturers are having a good look too, for their next product. Now it comes down to their morals if they’re here to steal an idea, work around it or work out a deal with the designer.
    THATS THE RISK YOU TAKE!

    I used to be so uptight about my ideas, reluctant to even tell close friends. But now I tell as many people as possible, to garner praise and get feedback about the idea. I used to spend hours looking at patents and working out if I could get one for various designs and calculated how much it would cost me etc.. then these ideas would go nowhere and lie halfbaked because of the costs.

    Now, I am against patents completely and advise 99% of you not to consider them, unless you have something so great that it will make millions.

    Heres Why: And I’ll use Ryan Harc as an (unfortunate) example: Achem…
    Assumed you have a bit of money and want to pursue an idea/design.
    The cost of a patent for this light would be about $25,000. Upfront payment, without market research etc. Big risk for a novel product. Product development manufacturing etc, on top of that when you have found a manufacturer to produce it you can expect about $5-$10K.
    Thats $35K and its not even in the stores.

    Now lets assume the light gets copied, the legal battle and costs involved fighting for your patent is anything between $45-$75,000 or more.
    You win the fight after a year and you redeem 50% of your legal costs and have exclusive exposure in the marketplace. Great News! But its now cost you almost 2 years and $80,000…

    Without a patent, you spend the same 5-10K on the manufacturer, but this time you spend $10,000 on viral marketing, advertising, getting the product known and working on your brand. The marketplace is saturated, competitors reconsider copying because your brand is so strong and demand is high.
    You see a return faster because your investment is only $20,000.
    Guerrilla marketing.

    Thats my theory anyway, patents have their place for big corporates, and a necessity if you have the next Dyson. But for the most of us they are not economically viable and the money is better spent in other ways.
    Keep on posting your ideas though, if they’re good enough they will see you through.

    “It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.” -Confucius

  • sssssss says:

    PLEASE BE AWARE THAT THIS DESIGN IS 100% STOLE FROM ONE OF COMPETITION WINNER. IF YOU ARE A DESIGNER OR A ORGANIZATION THAT IS SUPPORTING CREATIVE FIELED PLEASE SHOW SOME RESPECT.

  • Hua Ning says:

    It takes a manufacturer a long time to develop tooling for massive production. So I would suggest design at a fast pace and leave the copycat far behind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>