Inventor recognition programs: Should you have them?

Inventors love to be recognized for their innovations!  In fact, most of us like positive feedback from the fruits of our labour.  However, creating something new and innovative often has a very special place in an inventor’s heart.  An invention is often an inventor’s brain child and a patent embodies its genius.  From my experience, recognizing an inventor’s contribution can go a long way to establishing a positive relationship between an employee and employer for those companies that are large enough to hire people to invent for them.

A cash incentive is one way to reward innovation.  A number of years ago I noticed that my neighbour was installing a snazzy new front door on his house.  After we got talking, he mentioned that his company here in Ottawa gave him a bonus for filing some patent applications and he used that money to give his house a face-lift.  A few years later I asked if he was still filing patent applications.  Being an engineer of few words, he simply said “no” and with some more probing I found out that this was because the company stopped the monetary incentive program.  In fact, he said patent filings as a whole within the company were down as a result.  I guess money talks.  Plaques with an illustration of the patent and an inventor’s name are another way to reward inventors for their genius.  These can be mounted in a company lobby to showcase a company’s innovation.

Regardless of exactly how innovation is rewarded, the value in recognizing the contributions of inventors goes beyond promoting an innovative culture in an organization.  Although most employment contracts have a clause assigning inventors to the company, if this was overlooked for some reason, having a recognition program for inventors can be a factor that is considered by Canadian courts when determining if an invention is owned by the employer or by the company.  As set forth in Comstock, a landmark decision in Canada that sets out the factors to consider regarding whether a company owns the IP of an employer, one thing to be considered is whether a company promotes innovation.  If they do, this is factored into whether the employee was “hired to invent” (among a number of other things).  If it is determined that an employee is hired to invent (which to be honest is usually the case with companies), then patent rights reside with the employer.

Having said that, I have been in situations where employers are reluctant to reward inventors for filing patent applications.  This is often not because of failure to recognize talent.  Sometimes inventions are the result of a concerted effort involving input from large groups of people, many of whom may not have come up with the original idea, but nonetheless had a significant impact behind the scenes in seeing it come to fruition.  Lab technicians, and other personnel are highly educated and skilled at what they do, yet might not qualify as inventors if they did not contribute to the inventive concept of at least one claim.  Leaving these people out from a recognition program that is aimed only at inventors on a patent can decrease moral in the organization, which is certainly not the objective sought.  This can be a concern for organizations in which the generation of inventions is a multifaceted and complex endeavour.

This brings us back to the title of the post – should you have an employee incentive program?  Unfortunately, the answer is, this depends.  Perhaps the best way to address this is to come up with a program that is tailored for the particular needs of the ecosystem that exists within the functional level of an organization.  In my view, depending on the size of the organization, someone in middle management who is privy to the culture of inventors in an organization should be consulted to provide input in this regard.

Having said all this, maybe patent agents should be rewarded for drafting patent applications too!  A trophy would be nice.  Just kidding.

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