Do you have a brilliant idea that could change the way we communicate? Are you too overwhelmed to apply for a patent yourself? Do you trust people you have never met, at a gigantic corporation? If so, then Nokia's new program, "Invent With Nokia," could be just the thing for you.
Nokia wants your ideas. There are a lot of brains outside of Nokia coming up with ideas all the time, and why shouldn't Nokia get a piece of that action? Diverting flows of these random inventions on the Internet is an idea that's creeping into more and more R&D departments—from education materials publishers like Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to Intel and its science fair. Nokia's version is this: You submit an idea to Nokia, and agree not to mention it to anybody else for a period of four months, while Nokia reviews it. If Nokia passes, the idea and all rights revert back to you. But if Nokia is interested—and here's the carrot—Nokia can apply for a patent based on your invention, and "in return, you will be eligible for a financial reward."
Let's dispatch with the one obvious reason why this program might be a good idea for the lone inventor. Patents can be expensive to acquire and maintain, particularly in multiple markets. It can easily cost over a thousand bucks a year to protect a patent. And the U.S. patent office in particular moves extremely slowly, though it's working on fast-tracking some patents. There is a kind of comfort in feeding your idea into the brain of a big organization like Nokia, which can use its brawn to navigate the tricky waters of protecting and implementing your idea.
But despite this obvious potential perk, there seem to be more reasons to be skeptical than enthusiastic here. The opportunities for a lone inventor to get taken advantage of seem too great. Even parts of Nokia's pitch smack vaguely of an ambulance chasing lawyer telling you there's nothing to worry about as you sign on the dotted line. On its "How to submit" page, it urges you to register, a step whose purpose is just "to complete some simple legal formalities." Nokia then goes on to explain that sometimes you might submit an idea that, well, is just like an idea Nokia already had. "[W]e may already be aware of solutions that deliver the same benefit, either inside or outside Nokia. These alternative solutions may be superior in some way to your invention, so we're sure you'll understand if we don't wish to proceed further if that's the case." There's no reason to necessarily suspect Nokia would ever engage in anything underhanded here. But its language—to judge just from this web page, at least—seems to grant it extraordinary freedom to take ideas, look at them, find them interesting but ultimately "too similar" to something they're already working on, and reject your idea while potentially having benefited from it.
Finally, the move smacks of a vote of no-confidence by Nokia in itself. Of course, two brains are better than one, and 6 billion are better than two. But in a year where every financial headline about Nokia brings bad news, the crowdsourcing gesture smacks more of desperation than innovation.
Nokia had not answered a request for comment by post time—we'll update this story if they do.
Update: Nokia's Mark Durrant wrote in with a thorough explanation:
In response to your points, Invent With Nokia is a program to source external inventions, not just ideas for possible inventions, so we are looking for people who have discovered a new way of doing something. The program can only work if there is mutual trust, a common challenge for inventors, so we designed the program with this in mind, reflecting the high ethical standards in our Code of Conduct (http://www.nokia.com/corporate-responsibility/overview/code-of-conduct). It is also important to remember that in a fast paced area such as mobility, many people can come up with similar ideas independently of each other.
On the site, inventors can see the areas where we are looking for inventions and then submit non-confidential details to us, describing in general terms what the invention does, without any confidential details about how it does it.
Their submission is screened against a number of criteria, including future potential, alignment with Nokia's strategy and interests, novelty and inventiveness and suitability for close collaboration with Nokia.
Inventors of ideas which pass this stage will then be asked to agree further terms and conditions, to protect confidentiality and rights to the invention so that we can have more detailed discussion on how the invention works.
If we then believe that it is patentable and can see that it is novel over previous IP, we would proceed with patent filing. Inventors will be paid for any patent filing, with potential additional payments if products based on the invention are commercially successful.
If people have ideas of something that they would like to see, but have not invented the way of doing it, then we encourage them to share their ideas through IdeasProject, Nokia’s open innovation and crowdsourcing initiative.
[Image: Flickr user freakapotimus]