Patents and inventive spirit at Dyson

12 February 2016

4iP Council interviews Gill Smith, Group IP Director at Dyson about the company’s culture and reputation, the value of its patents and patent system success.

Dyson is a name synonymous with household technology invention and innovation. 4iP Council discussed the company’s reputation, IP portfolio and the value of the patent system with Gill Smith, Group IP Director at Dyson. Gill has worked alongside James Dyson, the company’s founder and Chairman for over eighteen years. She says his determination to succeed despite over 5000 prototype failures for his first invention and near bankruptcy shapes the company.

“You get hundreds and thousands of failures… The failure is the starting point.” James Dyson.

Dyson is a company founded by an inventor and entrepreneur, what impact does this have on the organisation?

The character and mindset of Dyson come from the top. This is very much James Dyson’s company, grown from his work and spirit. We have his name on all our products; he works here full time and he works as hard as anyone. Fortunately for me, James has had a very healthy respect for IP - particularly patents - from the outset and, as he has built this business, that has continued to be the case. Our patents are important to us and we value what they do for us. We respect other people’s patents and we expect others to respect our patents.

How important has it been to Dyson to patent its creative work?

The original patents preceded the development of the present group of companies, which now employ well over 5000 people worldwide, offering highly skilled positions. James began filing patents in the early ‘80s so he started out with an understanding of what patents were for and the part they could play in the development of the business. This way of thinking persists today. In short, it has always been crucial to protect all the inventions we make which allow our products to work better than others in the market.

Do you think Dyson could have been equally successful without patents?

It’s difficult to look back and say ‘what if’, but I think our patents and the court cases we’ve won enforcing them have been key in shaping the company. We want to produce products that everyday people value and we have invested a massive amount in R&D over the years – today it is about £3m per week. We have to get that investment back in some way otherwise there is no business sense in doing it. We don’t sell products that aren’t protected and we use our patents to good effect. “Determination” sums up James and that same determination sums up Dyson. Our attitude to patents tells the world how determined we are to make the best products. The amount of engineering time and money spent at Dyson on product development is colossal. If there were no IP in place, our products would inevitably be copied and Dyson would be in a very different place.

What have been the main benefits to Dyson of patenting?

The first is the establishment of a very clear market position. Our competitors learned through our early court cases that we are not to be messed with – and certainly not ignored. We were a much smaller company at that time and the strength of our patents enabled us to punch far above our weight. The competition learned to respect the IP that we hold in the same way that we respect theirs.

The second is that we are able to command the prices our products are worth by keeping our competitors from using our inventions. Our brand is associated with technology that has the capacity to improve people’s everyday lives and we are known for protecting that technology.

What do you find most interesting about being Group IP Director at Dyson?

I appreciate being able to look after a fantastic team of very capable, inventive people. If I think about what has surprised me most as I do my job, it is how little many attorneys in private practice understand about a real company operates. They can make what seem to me to be astonishing suggestions about how to “improve” a company’s IP position without having any understanding whatsoever of the impact of doing what they suggest in real life. In my view, private practice attorneys ought to be compelled to spend 6-12 months in an in-house department in order to get a feel for how a business operates.

What lessons has Dyson learned from entering a market where a competitor's name was synonymous as the generic term for a vacuum cleaner?

I’m not sure that we have learned any lessons from this. Some people do call a Dyson machine a “hoover” but, as a brand, Hoover is a lot less prominent than it used to be. The (mis)use of the word “hoover” hasn’t really bothered us – we don’t make a fuss about it. The patent-infringement run-in we had with Hoover in the ‘90s created a lot of media coverage. It was a very public fight and, whilst not deliberate on our part, I think the media splash helped the public to understand the difference between Dyson and Hoover. That seems to have stuck.

What is your message to those who support dismantling the patent system?

If you dismantle the patent system and take away constraints on copying you will end up with a free-for-all on innovation. The only business driver will be to be first on the market and flog as much product as possible before the copying starts. The time window for coping is very short and getting shorter all the time. Our own experience has shown that copycat products from China can appear in the marketplace within 5-6 months of launch. Without patents, there would be no point investing in product quality, as there wouldn’t be a return.

I don’t see a viable alternative to the patent system that isn’t another patent system – even if it’s not called that. If we want to live in a world where products are well designed and engineered to be the best they can be, we have to encourage innovative companies to make investments.

How could the patent system be improved?

I’m a big fan of harmonisation. I think the goal should be to have fewer than ten patent offices worldwide all operating exactly the same system in the same languages. This could allow applicants to make one filing and later expand a granted patent to cover as many territories as required. I suppose I’m seeing a global version of the EPO. Something like this would hopefully improve the accessibility of the system and also standardise the location of prior art before major expenses (such as renewal fees for individual countries) are incurred.

Valid patents are important. We need to be able to enforce our patents with fewer successful validity challenges. I have heard IP attorneys bragging that there is no patent they cannot invalidate – we need to put a stop to that. This is not about reducing opportunities for invalidating invalid patents: it’s about making sure that fewer invalid patents are granted in the first place.

The world is growing smaller and becoming more complex. Simplicity and adjustment is needed such as lowering fees for SMEs to allow better accessibility for smaller companies. If we can increase the presumption of validity, that can only be good. I wouldn’t mind if the bar for inventiveness were set higher as I’m all for patents for “proper” inventions. I don’t know anyone that doesn’t want fewer trivial patents but it has to come through regulation. Businesses won’t stop filing for borderline inventions if their competitors are doing it.

What advice would you offer a would-be inventor?

My first piece of advice is to find a patent attorney that you can get on with. Patenting can be a painful, expensive process and liking the person who helps you get through the process will help a lot. Secondly, I’d advise inventors not to be greedy. Many people fail to commercialise an idea simply because they make high royalty rates a prerequisite for everything. For first inventions, aim to make just enough money to be able to start off the next idea. If you can cover your costs and generate £10-20K that you didn’t have before, that will give you a great starting point for the next idea.

Author: Emma Bluck

The views expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and may not reflect the views of 4iP Council or its members. The purpose of this feature area is to reflect thinking on the topic of intellectual property and enable open discussion.

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