The Explainer: Victories delayed and innovative ideas

Maurice Garin got to celebrate his "win" in July of 1904.

Dear Explainer,
I very much enjoyed the break in the drug-related Explainer pieces, and apologize profusely for posing this question as it is tangentially drug-related, but, here goes. I’ve always feel terrible that athletes get robbed by cheaters of their moment in the spotlight; so, with the retroactive loss of podium placing by banned riders, do the newly elevated riders ever get a chance at their photo op?
— Joanna

Dear Joanna
The short answer is no.

There are rarely ceremonies for the newly declared winners of events in which the presumed winner is stripped of his title. Since you apologized for raising a question that is tangentially related to the question of doping, I’ll start with an event in which a winner was disqualified for non-dope-related reasons. I’ve written about the 1904 Tour before so I won’t go into a lot of detail here, but it wasn’t until December of that year that an investigation of the race by the French cycling federation of the day – the Union Vélocipédique Française – declared the results of the top four finishers null-and-void and awarded the Tour to the apparent fifth place finisher.

Henri Cornet: No Paris podium for the winner of the 1904 Tour

Poor Henri Cornet didn’t receive his award until months after the decision and it was presented to him privately.

Flash forward to 1996 when France’s Jerome Chiotti “won” the world cross-country mountain bike title, easily finishing ahead of Swiss rider Thomas Frischknecht. It was four years later that Chiotti, in an interview with the French magazine Vélo Vert, that he admitted he had doped in preparation for that world championship event. Feeling guilty, Chiotti invited Frischy out to dinner and personally presented him with the rainbow jersey and the medal, even before the UCI had ruled that Chiotti’s 1996 win was to be invalidated.

Of course, we’ve seen several similar episodes since then, with Floyd Landis’ 2006 Tour de France win, Tyler Hamilton’s 2004 Olympic time trial gold medal and now Alberto Contador’s 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro d’Italia wins all invalidated years after the fact.

None of those resulted in much of a public ceremony for the new winners, most certainly not anything akin to standing atop the final podium in Paris or receiving Olympic laurels while the world is paying attention.

Often, the new winner is reluctant to do or say much about the whole debacle. As Andy Schleck put it after he was declared the winner of the 2010 Tour, “there is no reason to be happy now. First of all I feel sad for Alberto. I always believed in his innocence. This is just a very sad day for cycling. The only positive news is that there is a verdict after 566 days of uncertainty. We can finally move on.”

While it may be nice to win an Olympic gold or a Tour, I’m not sure being declared the winner of a long-past event does anything but correct the record books.
— Charles

Re-inventing the bicycle?
Dear Explainer,
I spend a lot of time on my bike. Over the course of many hours each week, I get the chance to do a lot of thinking and my mind wanders all over the place.

Last month, I came up with an idea – a really, really good idea – to improve the bicycle. If you look at the enclosed drawings, I think you will agree that (it) represents a fundamental improvement to the drive train and I don’t think anyone has done it before.

I just don’t know what to do with it now.

I would eventually like to develop this into a business. I don’t have a ton of money to invest, but I want to get this out there and generate some revenue. What do I do to get this going? Should I approach bike and component companies? Should I try to start my own business? How does an idea like this come to the market?
— Robert

Dear Robert,
I appreciate you turning to me for advice on this, but new inventions and business start-ups are not my area of specialty. I will give it a shot, though, and I am going to start by not posting details of your design here, since I suspect you haven’t taken steps to start the patent process.

You are right, though, it seems like a pretty good idea and with a bit of work, you may have something there. I am a little uncertain, however, of your other assertion no one has tried it before.

I did a bit of a preliminary search and found a similar idea offered up for patent back in the 1930s. I have forwarded those drawing to you, not to let the wind out of your sails, but for you to see what differences – if any – exist between that earlier idea and yours.

Like I said, I am not particularly inclined to publish your drawings and details, since you may have a solid and patentable idea and it’s not my place to put that out there for others to see … and copy.

A word of warning and a disclaimer
Let me warn you that I am not an intellectual property lawyer. That’s a whole other field of law and requires practitioners to pass a separate bar exam, the Examination for Registration to Practice in Patent Cases before the United States Patent and Trademark Office or more commonly referred to as “the patent bar.” To even take the test, a lawyer also has to demonstrate that he or she has the technical or scientific background necessary to provide adequate service to clients. Usually, that means that the applicant should, at minimum, have an undergraduate degree in engineering or a science.

So why all this talk about patent lawyers? Because you probably need one and I’m not your guy.

There are some preliminary steps that you can take. First off, spend some time doing general research on the question of whether or not anyone has come up with your idea before. I have a bike engineer friend who likes to say that last truly innovative idea to come out of the bike industry was when the bike-shop-owning Wright brothers built their airplane and “they only did that to get the hell out of the bike industry.”

As with anything else these days, the first resource is – what else? – Google.

Back in the olden days, doing even the most preliminary patent searches took a huge effort, involving trips to government libraries and/or patent and trademark offices or scouring through archives preserved on something known as (ick) microfiche. Now? Just click here and you can search to your heart’s content through more than 8 million patent and patent applications. It’s almost like a porn site for geeks.

See what you can come up with and don’t limit yourself to just patents and patent applications. Look around and see if there is any “prior art” showing similar concepts. Doing a bit of preliminary research like that can save you money, even if you eventually decide to pursue the idea and approach a patent attorney with your questions.

The bottom line, however, is that if your idea is truly original, or at least different enough from earlier ideas to warrant a patent, you need to take steps to protect that idea. That’s when you start the hunt for a patent attorney and, hopefully, one with something of a background in cycling.

I am certainly encouraging you to be quiet about the idea until you’ve spoken with a patent specialist. Some designers feel that it’s to their benefit to publicize an idea as soon as they develop it, since the existence of the aforementioned prior art gives you some basis for a claim if someone else comes along and runs with the idea. Such “defensive publication” might be a good idea, but I’m not going to make that call for you and post your design here. Part of the problem is that we’re dealing with international markets here. While defensive publication might help you in the U.S., where the policy is to grant a patent to the first person who invented the concept, other countries don’t bother with that approach and simply grant the patent to the first person who files. In those first-to-invent countries, prior art doesn’t carry as much weight.

The patent process can seem lengthy and sometimes it’s quite expensive. Still, it’s money well spent. Once you have the application in, you can be a little more open about the idea, label it as “patent pending,” and get to work shopping your idea around.

As for the business side, that’s going to have to be your call. Pitching your idea to a bigger company – like a SRAM or a Campagnolo – may prove to be the most beneficial, since they have design and manufacturing resources readily available. Since you don’t have a lot of capital at your disposal, that may be your best option.

Before you weigh any of those questions, make sure your idea is adequately protected. The fun and profit from developing a new idea takes time, but the first step is to protect the concept. It’s an interesting design, Robert, and I wish you the best.
– Charles

The Explainer is now a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

Follow me on Twitter: @Charles_Pelkey

6 comments

  1. John Borstelmann

    You can also use the search engine at http://www.uspto.gov, the U.S. patent and trademark office, which has a bunch of articles on how to apply for a patent or trademark for your idea. Patent attorneys are expensive, and you need to find one who knows the bicycle business. The more work you do yourself, the more affordable it will be. You will also need a specialist artist to prepare your patent application submission; they won’t accept photos!? Be prepared for a long wait for your patent; the US PTO is very understaffed, underfunded and buried in applications…It took my son 14 months to get his patent, and he politely hounded the PTO.

  2. Gary W

    ..if you only had to wait 14 months, you got a very quick response. I have 8 patents, some of which have taken as long as 5 years to be completed. 2 years if more like “normal”.

  3. Paul Feng

    Absitiviely, posolutely DO NOT make any non-confidential disclosure of your idea(s) until a patent application has been filed. Unfortunately, the process can be very expensive (think on the order of a top frame with the top electronic shifting group). A possibly lower-cost route, initially, is to file a U.S. Provisional Patent Application, which does not need to have all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, compared to a regular “non-provisional” application. While it is possible to file a patent application “pro se,” without a Patent Agent or Attorney representing you, I do not recommend it, as the quality of the protection you (may) obtain is not likely to be good as it would be if you hired experienced help. If you are serious about making some money off your idea, then spend the money to do it right. On the other hand, if the cost of hiring a patent practitioner would nix the whole endeavor, then perhaps you might as well do it pro se. A good resource, either way, is David Pressman’s book “Patent It Yourself,” which discusses more than just getting patents, but what you might actually do with your patent(s).

  4. John Neugent

    Robert,

    I have a number of patents under my belt and pretty much most of what Charles and the other posters are saying bears consideration. The bad news, however, is that getting a patent is the easiest part of the equation. What is not mentioned here is the fact that even with a patent, it doesn’t offer the protection you may think. Patent suits are extremely expensive (a small one is $100K) and the big company’s use this as a business tool. Most inventors can’t afford to spend that kind on money. Therefore, larger companies will outspend you to drive you out of your patent rights. It’s all legal and comes under the title of “How much justice can you afford? Law.” God bless the US legal system (Charles – I am not knocking you – I just have to have my fun with this). Another angle, and one that really bears looking into (and I haven’t seen the drawings so can’t comment of feasibility) is to commercially market the idea either with or without a patent. If you are successful you can pay fees you can’t if you don’t have income. Good luck. John Neugent

  5. Derek

    I have to side with Mr. Neugent unfortunately. Even with a patent it is easy for an off-shore manufacturer to make a knock-off product. By the time you get through the court system any profit is now a debt to lawyers. So now you owe money and probably still cannot enforce any cease and desist orders the court may have issued.
    Not to say you shouldn’t pursue a good idea. It will just be hard to wring any money from it, only my opinion. Good luck.

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