Why would acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker’s affiliated invention business, World Patent Marketing, need ex-Israeli Special Ops for security?
It is rare that national headlines touch upon patent law, and even rarer for Trump’s firing of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to even hint at a patent-related issue. So, here, in our little patent-corner of the world, we could not pass up the opportunity to weigh in.
The day after the midterms, Trump fired AG Sessions and tapped Mr. Sessions’ chief-of-staff, Matthew G. Whitaker, to serve in the role as acting Attorney General. Shortly thereafter, the press started to report that Mr. Whitaker was previously an advisory board member for a company known as, World Patent Marketing, before it closed shop following a consent decree with the FTC.
The FTC complaint sets forth numerous allegations painting World Patent Marketing (WPM) as an invention-scam company. Essentially, WPM solicited business from customers having purported ideas for inventions that have yet to be patented. WPM touted, apparently falsely, prior success stories of helping customers to acquire patents and arrange licensing of their inventions.
WPM collected fees in advance, sometimes upwards of $60,000, after which, very little happened. Patents were not acquired, or they were of very poor quality. Licensing and manufacturing deals were not negotiated. Rather than following through with numerous promised services, including marketing the invention at supposed round tables, WPM instead did nothing. (It does not appear that Mr. Whitaker, himself, was named in the FTC’s complaint, and he does not appear to have been found personally liable for any of WPM’s conduct.)
Yet, one of the things that WPM apparently did take very seriously was customer complaints. In one instance, WPM allegedly threatened a customer who attempted to receive a refund with committing federal extortion for having made the request over email.
In another instance, the company allegedly notified all customers that a former customer who wished to speak with WPM about an invention idea was expelled by, in what appear to be WPM’s own words, an “intimidating security team, all ex-Israeli Special Ops and trained in Krav Maga, one of the most deadly of the martial arts.” The email to customers concluded, “[t]he World Patent Marketing Security Team are the kind of guys who are trained to knockout first and ask questions later.”
Exactly why an invention/licensing business that would likely focus on retail, consumer-products inventions, requires ex-Israeli Special Ops security trained in Krav Maga is not entirely clear. Nor is it clear why such a business would require security that punches first, and asks questions later. As a patent attorney, my colleagues and I have worked with scores of clients who regularly disclose ideas confidentially. Yet, for whatever reason, having “security” has never been a cost that seemed required. That said, perhaps it is worth revisiting.
Most people are familiar with these scams. Stop anyone on the street, and they probably have a great idea that they’re sure could be worth billions. Companies such as WPM clearly prey upon that sensibility, namely, that your big idea is your ticket out. And because the general collective literacy around what is required to procure a patent and negotiate a license with a manufacturer is generally low, invention-scam companies succeed in duping unsuspecting retail customers whose hopes and dreams are wrapped up in their big idea.
The irony is that, if there were legitimate businesses that could help you take your invention from idea to marketable product with a license, they would provide a very valuable service. Procuring patents is a complicated matter, which can take years and several stages of tactical and strategic thinking. Figuring out how to take an idea, build a prototype and set up the manufacturing often requires a separate skill set unique to different industries. Knowing how to license a patent or to place products in Big Box stores are additional skill sets that people take years to develop. Having a great idea is just the first step in a long line of steps towards monetizing your big idea. Indeed, having a patent, by itself, is really just the first in many steps.
The press spotlight on Mr. Whitaker, and correspondingly on WPM, may do some good to raise awareness about invention-scam businesses. These businesses proliferate because most people on the street do not understand how patents and inventions work. This correspondingly, puts a focus on the need to increase IP literacy, as my partner, Gaston Kroub has aptly argued. The pendulum may eventually swing-back in favor of patent holders, and IP literacy will be a required part of business literacy.
If you have a great new idea, the best first step is to contact a patent attorney. We field calls all the time regarding possible inventions. Most patent attorneys will be fairly candid with prospective clients about the feasibility of obtaining a patent. For a variety of reasons, most patent lawyers would prefer not to work on dead-end ideas that are unlikely to result in a patent. I have talked many prospective friends/clients out of pouring money into unpatentable ideas, (such as a Christmas ornament shaped like a Chanukah menorah—great idea! but probably not going to get a patent on that . . . .)
In short, the invention-scam business is hardly an epidemic, but the national focus on this peripheral issue, which is sure to be brief, highlights one reason for increased intellectual-property literacy.