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Innovating through disruption: a chat with digital’s Willy Wonka

MB: Can you tell us about the maker culture and the ideas behind it?

NM: It’s really interesting to see how the world is changing. Technology is changing, the culture of people is changing. Maker culture is really just a product of people wanting to get their hands dirty. In the US, we had the Ikea-fication of the world, where I could eat dinner with silverware and five of my friends had the exact same silverware because that’s just what everyone defaulted to. I think that we’re going through a rejection of that, where people want something that feels personal or unique, and feel like they have some unique value. I think that’s difficult to do, especially in the age of the internet.

Music’s a really good example. Years ago, whenever you had less access to information, any kind of information that you had and felt special about, you owned. So whether it was a band you liked, or an artist or musician, if you went through the effort of discovering something, you could retain that piece of information and feel special. You would use that to define yourself. You would have trends with clothing and fashion — all these things were just things people could use to define themselves, even if they weren’t making stuff. They were still consumers, but they felt special.

With the internet, it dropped those boundaries to discovery so much that anything that can be accessed is instantly accessible to a large portion of the world at the same time. If you’re a younger person, and you’re into underground music and bands, it’s very hard to feel like you have something special. That’s what leads people to start to make stuff themselves, or at least to have the desire to make stuff themselves because that’s when you get back to something that is artisan and personalised. I think that is culturally what is happening.

On the technical side, I think you have the speed of production and the access to tools and technologies. Especially on the hardware side, beyond software — it’s just becoming more and more available. For a long time, we saw the birth of software company after software company — the idea that a hacker sits alone and builds Facebook. But now I think that’s on the hardware side as well, where you can design a watch or a product, or make something that’s physical with electronics. That is happening.

In the US, TechShop is a chain that’s popping up, and it is learning tied to fabrication. It’ll have a shared space that has a wood shop, maybe a laser cutter, maybe a sewing machine, stuff that is used to make projects. It’s being used by artists, small companies, by people who want to make a bird house for their house, whatever. It’s a membership based system. The maker world emerged in the last five or six years, and I think that kind of stuff had been going on in the arts for a very long time, people had this desire to make something and say that they made it.

Now it’s really just the same as do it yourself, but the access to technology is just much more available. The challenge people are going to have is that making anything is hard — it’s always going to be easier to just buy something or consume something that everyone else has. It takes a strong desire for people to go out and work.

MB: What do you think patent battles mean for innovation in the technology industry?

NM: Patent law in the United States is changing for the better. I used to be this anti-patent proponent, but patents do have value. The challenge in the United States however was the cost of securing one and the time required. A typical patent for Carnegie would cost US$80 000 and take three years to secure. At the end of those three years, you could have spent US$80 000 and have no patent.

It’s very expensive. It’s not the idea that the US Patent and Trade Office started out with, which was “I’m an inventor and I have this sketch and this great idea and I’m going to patent it because I’m a genius.” That doesn’t exist unless that genius has enough money independently or is backed by a corporation and is willing to go through the legal [process]. The way in which you present yourself and write a patent becomes very important — that’s why you spend the US$80 000, because you need someone who is going to write the patent in a way that gets around other patents to protects it so it’s defensible.

It’s not that they’re not amazing patents that deserve to be granted, it’s just that a cycle has been created where corporations would hold hundreds and thousands of patents, rather than individuals being able to invent and hold patents. But times have changed — most patents are getting through in a year now, which is incredible. It changes my perspective on patents. One year is a manageable amount of time, three years is hard to conceive. Will it even be more competitive in three years?

I was part of a panel where the US Patent and Trademark Office went around talking to entrepreneurs they invited to give a feedback on patents, and they did correct this. They brought on more staff, they got patents through much more quickly and they gave feedback much more quickly. Typically, there are patent trolls, which are companies which solely exist to buy up patents and then sue people for patent infringement.

There was a period when mobile was getting big where people took patents that already existed and refiled them for a mobile device. So you could buy those up and then go out and hunt people. You send your threatening letter, and demand a licensing fee, and you would have to defend yourself in court and pay your own fees. So even if you won that court case, you would still have all those fees you just spent to defend yourself in court, and for a small startup or entrepreneur, that would kill you. So what you would do instead is agree to pay a licensing fee to whoever that patent holder is and you don’t even argue in court. It’s extortion. That’s how patent trolls profit from the threat of a lawsuit.

The law has changed: if I come and sue you, and you defend yourself in court and you win, I have to pay all of your legal fees plus any reimbursement for expenses you may have incurred going through this process. It really changes the game, because now if you truly believe you are not in violation of that patent, you can go and defend it and there’s a little less risk involved.

We worked on a product that went through this recently. It was a smart parking application we developed for a client and a patent troll came after the client. The client was forced to pay a US$100 000 license fee because their lawyers told them that for them to go to court and defend it, it would cost much more and they may not win.

Samsung and Apple… I don’t have a big opinion on it. I understand the argument that it forces people to find new ways to be innovative and I don’t really fully buy the argument that it creates a worse customer experience for people. That assumes that whatever experience you’ve created is the be all and end all, the final grand solution. I don’t think that’s true.

I think it’s difficult. Apple is a very vigilant company with patents, and Samsung and Apple both have very talented and expensive legal teams, but as consumers I don’t think we’re really going to see much effect from it. Startups are in the same boat as always — I doubt they want to infringe on an Apple patent, they want to build something that is unique and their own because they want to be the next Apple more than they want to replicate. There’s no real value to replicating. I don’t think it’s going to affect anyone other than Samsung and Apple.

Author | Mich Atagana

Mich Atagana
Mich started out life wanting to be a theoretical physicist but soon realized that mathematics was required. So, she promptly let go of that dream. She then decided that law might be the best place for her talents, but with too many litigation classes missed in favour of feminist... More
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