Saturday, August 24, 2013

Patenting Potties: Portland Loos Fight to be Number One

The business of doing your business is complex and competative. What can be said to be intellectual property, and what is just basic common sense?

Just found out that the City of Portland has sued Rometic Inc. over its similar design in sidewalk toilets (see Portland Sues over its Loos)

I visited the Portland Loo when I was in the area for my Brother's graduation in May, having read an article about its design. On the face of it is an interesting concept, but has definite room for improvement.

The Portland Loo is meant to be inhospitable as possible: to get people to do exactly what they are supposed to do in the loo and nothing else. The slats at the top and bottom provide ventilation, but also allow authorities to see if there are too many pairs of feet inside. The stainless steal walls are meant to be graffiti resistant (though people have got round that by scratching messages into them). The sink is on the outside to prevent homeless people from using it to wash their clothes or to shower... though I have to say at the one I visited this prevention was further helped by the fact the tap didn't work at all, so no one was going to wash anything... including hands!

It was otherwise a reasonably nice, if unremarkable loo.

The city is hoping to make significant profit from these loos, and so far has sold 3 at a cost of $90,000 each (1/3 profit according to commentators on the article) and argues that Romtech's significantly lower priced loos are going to edge them out of the market.

While I understand the business side and the desire to protect intellectual property, it seems that Portland is missing a few tricks here.

They have identified several problems that are faced by cities across the country when looking at toilet provision, and have proposed a solution. What that solution honestly needs now is for people to take and improve on it. Rather than trying to protect a fairly common-sense design that works decently but not brilliantly, Portland's efforts might be better spent looking at how they can improve their offer to be able to legitimately compete on the market or become an advisor to others. Three sales is not a great track record, and if we all have to wait for a Portland Loo until they are affordable everywhere we may have to wait a good long time!

In her book The Big Necessity Rose George talks about a time-honoured tradition of entrepreneurs who chose not to copyright their innovations because they say them as the solution to a widespread problem and, quite the opposite of wanting to make them exclusive they wanted to make them widely available and easily adoptable by others.
"...I see this attitude often in sanitarians. None has applied for patents. None wants to remove his useful ideas into expensive inaccessibility... Patenting is daft, according to the two Steves [creators of The Gulper]. It defeats the purpose. "The idea," says Sugden, "is to develop something a small-scale sector can afford to adopt. If you patent it, it's expensive and they can't adopt it. It has to be simple and rugged and bomb-proof." (George 2008, 218) 
Now, most of the innovators in this chapter are developing technology for third-world countries where having any toilet at all is an issue. But the principal of needing to find an innovative problem to a social solution is still there.

I will be interested to see where this case goes (and to reflect on what that means for the business of toilets).

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