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Thomas Edison’s electricity, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, the Wright Brothers’ creaky biplane, H.G. Wells’ time machine (OK, that last one hasn’t happened yet), but through these world-changing discoveries, our daily lives have been made easier. Flick a switch and light banishes the darkness, pick up a phone and chat away to a distant cousin in Timbuktu, hop on to an airplane and go and have lunch with her the next day. All of these inventions have transformed the world into one huge global village.

But, like Rome, none of these inventions were created in a day. They are the result of years of research, testing, trial and error by their inventors.

And manga fan Hideo Nakazawa certainly knows all about that. Growing up as a big fan of cartoon characters such as Astro Boy and Tetsujin 28, Nakazawa always believed that the day would come when robots like them would populate the real world rather than just the imagination. And, driven by a desire to reshape the future, Nakazawa has been a constant source of inventive ideas, both big and small.

But for a long time, he was unsuccessful.

One of the things Nakazawa thought up around 35 years ago was making tiny holes in plastic bags to put in the kitchen-sink plughole. And, hey presto, no more solid waste being washed away and blocking the pipes. Thirty years ago, he came up with the idea of an analog watch using a liquid-crystal display; 20 years ago, he thought what a good idea it would be to have an on/off switch on those multiple-socket electricity power strips — so he made it.

Eventually, all of these inventions were registered — but not by Nakaza- wa.

“I admit I was disappointed when all of them reached the stage of practical application,” he says. “But at the same time, it also boosted my confidence because I knew then that my ideas were going in the right direction.”

One of the main reasons why Nakazawa could not get the patent for his inventions was simply bad timing. Pinpointing the right moment, he says, is difficult — but crucial. Ideally, he reckons that “being half a step ahead of the times” is the best bet.

“If you are a half-step behind, others will take your rights, but if you are too far ahead, no one will appreciate it,” says Nakazawa. “It’s just like inventing keitai [cell phone] straps in the Taisho Era [1912-26]; No one would want them because no one had cell phones, so they had no use for the straps.”

Finally, though, the light has begun to shine on Nakazawa’s inventions, and major manufacturers are starting to take note. Some of them are pretty wacky — magnets that light up, jewelry with a liquid-crystal display (so you can select the visual image of your choice, just like a cell phone) and animal-shaped bookmarks with indicators (the hands or tails slide so that you not only know the page, you know which sentence you are up to). Others are very practical, such as a drying agent with a fan that can be fitted in a closet to keep the air dry and prevent mold forming on your clothes. Wacky or not-so wacky, Nakazawa is applying for patents for them all.

“It is very difficult to apply for a patent,” says Nakazawa. “You need to study the law and industrial property rights, while making sure your invention does not overlap with another. Of course, you could always hire a patent attorney, but then, it’ll cost you so much that you’ll end up losing rather than gaining money.”

Even if you don’t ask a patent lawyer for assistance, obtaining a patent in Japan is extremely expensive — and if you want to patent your invention in other countries, too, you have to go through the whole procedure over there, too. In Japan, however, following a revision of the Patent Law — which took effect in April — the cost has come down a little bit, but it’s still not cheap.

Inventors must first pay 16,000 yen (or 26,000 yen if the application is made — say, by a foreigner — in the English language) to the Japanese Patent Office to file for an application. Then, for the first claim, there’s an examination fee of 172,600 yen. Once the claim is registered, there are annual fees to pay — 2,800 yen for the first three years; 8,700 yen for the fourth to sixth years; 26,200 yen for the seventh to ninth years; and 87,600 yen for the 10th to 25th years. Basically, the longer you hold on to your rights, the more you have to pay.

“That is why I don’t necessarily recommend that inventors obtain patents at first,” says Tadashi Shimomura, president of Idea Clinic in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture. “Inventors are always afraid that their ideas will be stolen, but there is too much of a financial risk, especially considering the fact that even multinational corporations like Sony pay the exact same price as an individual applicant.”

For almost 30 years, Shimomura spent his days at Daiya Corp., which, though it is well known as a manufacturer of golfing and household goods, also develops ideas and inventions submitted by individuals and turns them into marketable products. During his time there, Shimomura reckons he judged more than 100,000 inventions entered into outside contests. With all that experience, he set up Idea Clinic in 2001 to act as a consultancy for amateur inventors.

“Many people have good ideas, but don’t know what to do from there,” says Shimomura. “Very few are looking to start up a business from their inventions. They usually just come to ask me whether their idea that they have been fiddling with has any value.”

As part of his job, Shimomura assesses the submitted inventions and states his opinion, often giving the creator advice on how to make it into a product that a company would buy. Usually, he says, the simplest inventions are what companies are looking for.

One of the best examples, he says, is the late Kimika Sasanuma, who made 300 million yen in royalties — which are usually 2 to 5 percent of the wholesale price — from sales of a simple sack that catches thread and lint in a washing machine. Proudly, Shimomura adds that he was in charge of evaluating her idea when he was at Daiya.

“All it was in the beginning was just a pair of stockings and a plastic ring with a handle,” says Shimomura. “But once it went on the market, it sold like crazy.”

Sasanuma, however, is an extreme example, as Shimomura stresses that most inventors are lucky to even make a bit of pocket money.

Nonetheless, the public’s interest in inventing seems to be growing. According to the Japanese Patent Office, in 1993 there were only 366,486 applications for patents, whereas in 2003 that number had risen to 413,092.

Along with the increase in patent applications, however, problems began to surface.

Drop in to any 100 yen shop, for example, and lined up on shelf after shelf there you will see daily items that look almost identical to products sold for five times as much in regular stores. All of those regular products and their designs are likely under patent, but that doesn’t stop other makers — often using cheap labor in overseas locations — from selling almost identical items that have a small detail which is different in order to avoid charges of illegal copying.

“Most people don’t bother suing the stores,” says Shimomura. “It just costs too much money. Of course, if you have the money and the backbone to sue, you should.”

On a wider front, though, some people are beginning to stand up for their rights.

In Japan, inventors who work for companies do not get much credit — or reward — for their inventions, which employers like to regard simply as part of what they were paid a salary to do.

Some former employees, though, have begun challenging this convenient corporate assumption by filing lawsuits against the companies for which they worked.

Shuji Nakamura, for example, is famous as the person who created the blue light-emitting diode. In 2001, Nakamura sued Nichia Corp., where he used to work, with the result that the Tokyo District Court ordered the company to pay 20 billion yen to Nakamura in January this year.

Nichia is currently appealing the judgment.

In another case, in 2002 a man registered Hanshin Yusho (Victory for Hanshin Tigers) as a trademark, with the aim of earning royalties from goods sold with those words on them. The Hanshin Tigers organization filed a complaint to the Japanese Patent Office, and at the end of 2003 the authority ruled against the individual’s trademark claim over Hanshin Yusho.

“The Patent Law is always being reconsidered and revised,” says Shimomura. “But these incidents occur because it is a human being who evaluates and makes decisions on patents.”

The main focus of next year’s planned revision of the Patent Law will be on corporate inventions, and payments made to salaried inventors. There may still be a lot of holes in the patent system, but little by little they are being plugged — ultimately to the benefit of consumers, who will be able to benefit even more from the protection afforded inventors like Nakazawa and his innovative creations.

“If you take a look around you, there are ideas for inventions all over the place,” says Nakazawa. “And I think there are still a countless number of ideas, as many as there are stars in the sky. It’s just that we haven’t realized it yet.”

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