John Calvert, A Champion for Indepenent Inventors

John Calvert (r) with Senator Birch Bayh (ret.) at PTO 30th Anniversary celebration of Bayh-Dole.

John Calvert, a twenty-four year veteran of the USPTO, retired in June 2014. If you are in the independent inventor or product commercialization communities you undoubtedly know Calvert. After starting as a patent examiner, in 1999 he started working with independent inventors. He would ultimately be in charge of the independent inventor outreach efforts of the USPTO by the time he retired.

Calvert didn’t go quietly off into the sunset though, which is a good thing. A long time friend and champion of the independent inventor he is now going to work with and for inventors in the private sector by and through the United Inventors Association (UIA). As the new Executive Director of the UIA he will lend his time and talents in an endeavor that is near and dear to his heart.

What follows is the second and final segment of my interview with Calvert. To start reading from the beginning please see: A Conversation with New UIA Executive Director John Calvert.

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QUINN: And it’s troubling because people who are really in the industry or follow the industry know that with very few exceptions it’s not the large companies that wind up innovating. I mean Apple is a great example. They’re reinvented themselves a couple times and they do innovate. QUALCOMM innovates. IBM innovates. You know, IBM spent $6 billion research and development budget a year. I mean they’re going to find a lot of interesting stuff. But those large companies tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule. Where innovation comes is from the individual and small business. Or the individual that starts the small business.

CALVERT: Exactly. A good example of that is Woody Norris who was at the Independent Inventor Conference. He’s one of those individuals that has the financial wherewithal, but he built that himself. And he’s thinking just a little bit further ahead than everybody else is. It’s real interesting, you know, there’s a lot of independent inventors and small business people that are very innovative if we could just give them a chance and be able to help them get protection and then get into the marketplace. And I think that’s the biggest problem right now that I see is because of the recession, because it’s languishing, and it really hasn’t been a fast recovery it’s languishing recovery we’re going through, that I think that’s hurting that independent inventor, that small business man because there’s no money for them to be able to find anywhere.

QUINN: Well, I think that’s true and I think you can go beyond that, I mean getting a mortgage today is practically impossible, or at least it feels practically impossible. I’ve talked to a few people who have tried to get mortgages and we’re going through the process of trying to refinance at the moment; it is unbelievable, you know? I’ve never missed a payment in my entire life and the amount of information that they want in order to even tell you whether or not they will consider getting an appraisal to move forward with refinancing a mortgage is incredible. There is a tremendous stranglehold on capital in this economy and that’s hurting everybody. And I don’t know what the answer to that is but until we start to really address these issues like grown up adults this economy is going to go no where. I don’t know what the solution is, but exactly where is somebody supposed to get the money? I mean patents are getting harder to get, they’re getting harder to keep because of the invalidation process. This is very troubling because investors have been the lifeblood of the industry. People can’t just go out and get home equity loans any more to move forward with their dreams so they need these investors to pony up money. But without any patent rights or meaningful patent rights that just doesn’t happen.

CALVERT: You’re right. I mean I can tell you I’m going through a renovation on a house in North Carolina and we had to have a change in the roofing in order to make sure that it wouldn’t have a leak. And it was a $14,000 change. Well, the bank is not paying the contractor so what does that mean? Either the contractor has to pay out of his pocket to the sub or the sub doesn’t get paid. And it’s the bank that’s holding the money up. And it’s there.

QUINN: Right. I guess the bank would rather not have that fixed so that way their security is totally worthless.

CALVERT: Right.

[Patent-Search]

QUINN: There’s such idiotic thinking going on. The ability to repay and your track record of never missing a payment and having a credit score over 800 seems completely irrelevant. It is like a Twilight Zone episode. The thing that kills me is on all of these various levels if you would just get a handful of intelligent people in the room you could figure all this stuff out.

CALVERT: Exactly.

QUINN: And government has gotten so big and so ineffective and they’re just in the way and I don’t know what the ultimate solution is going to be. And that’s why I think it really has to be the next great innovation that is going to capture people’s attention in the way that the Internet did. You know, and the way that the smartphone did. That will be what pulls us out of this Great Recession and extraordinarily tepid recovery. But as the patent rights erode that seems all the less likely.

CALVERT: Right. And I don’t know which way it’s going to go, Gene. I’m concerned. I think that we have some really good inventors out there but they have to think about what invention they’re doing. And for years I’ve been telling them, hey, don’t just do a little improvement, think about how you can be disruptive. And that disruptiveness is what moves things forward and there hasn’t been a whole lot of disruptiveness recently.

QUINN: No. We seem to have a populous that is enamored with copying. Copycats.

CALVERT: Yes.

QUINN: Whether it’s music, whether it’s inventions, whether it’s software code, whether it is blog articles, nobody wants to do their own thing anymore. And that is really hampering progress. It is not progress to copy – it is really the antithesis of progress. So these people who say, “oh, patents are too strong they get in the way of innovation”, they get in the way of copycats, that’s what they get in the way of.

CALVERT: That’s exactly right.

QUINN: They don’t get in the way of companies like IBM investing in meaningful research and development. They do not get in the way of university professors who are researching basic science that then leads to some great discoveries and innovations of our time. If you’re really doing meaningful work a patent doesn’t stop you, what it does is it pushes you to go into a yet unexplored direction and that’s the march of innovation.

CALVERT: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

QUINN: So how do we get that message across?

CALVERT: Well, I’m hoping to be able to do that starting in the Spring. One of the other things I’m going to do in retirement is I’m going to teach. I’m going to have the opportunity to start a class of intellectual property for engineers and scientists and entrepreneurs at North Carolina State. So I think that by doing a class like that we can actually make students understand and those students could then be the next innovators, the next legislators that will understand what to do and try to move things forward. I think it has to start from the schools. It may take a while but I think it’s going to have to happen that way.

QUINN: We need to have a ground up approach for sure. I think that unfortunately, and there is no answer I’m afraid, but unfortunately I think that means we’re in for a long dark winter here.

CALVERT: Yep.

QUINN: And that really is not something to look forward to. So not to like totally sound depressing like we may be here now, because inventors are some of the most optimistic people in the world. And Leo Mazur, I think you know Leo, he was the President of the South Florida group for years.

CALVERT: Right.

QUINN: He always told me that inventors are the laziest people on the planet. I said what do you mean, Leo? And he’s like, well, they will spend years and years or work, maybe a decade of their time, trying to figure out a way to do something that will save 15 seconds.

CALVERT: Exactly.

QUINN: Obviously he was joking around a little bit. It is the pursuit of convenience that drives many inventors. It’s that kind of mentality, that kind of drive to make it better, to make it easier, to make it more friendly, that’s what drives so many independent inventors. And you can’t go down that path unless you’re optimistic. So where is the optimism? What kind of message of optimism do you think you’ll have?

CALVERT: Well, I think that I always try to give an optimistic future to inventors. Saying, hey, look, it takes a little work but once you get there it moves forward. So I’m hoping that what I can do is try to instill some understanding of the system, try to get inventors to think about not just those little minor improvements but the big picture. And that will create the optimism for that inventor to move forward. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard me talk about— I talk to inventors and I say, hey, the only way to have a good idea is to have many ideas and throw the bad ones away. And that’s not my quote, that’s a quote from a Nobel Laureate. So it’s something you have to think about and that’s the optimism you have to have, you know? And I know that every inventor has more than one idea.

QUINN: Yeah. I’ve heard it explained another way along those same lines – what you as an inventor need to do is hurry up and fail.

CALVERT: Exactly.

QUINN: Because you’re going to have bad ideas, you’re going to fail, and you’d rather have them fail quickly with having spent as little money and time as possible so you can get on to what’s next. Because in my experience if you really are an inventor you’re going to invent again and again and again. So knowing when is enough and move on to the next idea is a critically important thing for inventors.

CALVERT: Oh, absolutely. And you know I see that in some of the accelerators that I visited when I was with the USPTO. And they had a three month cycle. If you didn’t capitalize your innovation or your invention or your product within three months you’re out the door. That’s a very short time frame when you think about it.   But that really allows you to put that emphasis for a very short period of time to find out whether something is good or not and if it’s not move on to the next thing.

QUINN: Yes.

CALVERT: And I think that’s what inventors have to think about doing. Don’t keep hammering away at the same old thing that hasn’t been successful. Move on to your next invention. You learn from that.

QUINN: I think that’s critical advice. Again, to bring up Leo, he always says don’t throw it way though, put it on your shelf because you never know when you might need to borrow something, or the invention may get a new life with some fresh ideas down the road. But I’ve taken a lot of your time already, so let’s wrap it up here. It sounds like you’ve got your hands full and you’ve got a lot of good ideas and you’re going to get a lot of help from folks in the industry so I think the UIA is going to be looking good moving forward here. And I look forward to helping you however I can.

CALVERT: Well, Gene, I look forward to working with you and having you back in the fold at UIA once again.

QUINN: Well, that sounds good. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me and good luck.

CALVERT: Thank you, Gene, I appreciate it.

 

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