From the top · 7 March 2018

The 25-year Trevor Baylis patent fight must protect future entrepreneurs

Trevor Baylis
Trevor Baylis with his iconic wind-up radio

As serial inventor Trevor Baylis passes away, Business Advice reflects on his personal war against patent theft and influence on future entrepreneurs.

A quick Google search for Trevor Baylis will show an inventor in their true environment. Former North Londoner Baylis was the most notable resident of Eel Pie Island – a Victorian holiday resort in South West London which gained notoriety in the 1960s through live performances by acts such as the Rolling Stones and The Who. The island retained its intrigue and continues to house a small community of creative types. It became Baylis’ home in the late-1950s until his death in 2018.

As a lifelong inventor with at least 250 unique items to his name, Baylis achieved fame as creator of the wind-up radio. His radio could be powered for up to 15 minutes with just a few spins and no external power source. It was inspired by a documentary about Africa’s AIDS crisis in 1991, and he hoped his creation could be used in developing countries to deliver public health broadcasts.

His big break came after a demonstration of the radio on BBC programme Tomorrow’s World in 1994, which saw investors line up to fund its distribution.

However, rival manufacturers were soon navigating intellectual property laws to produce slight variations of the radio’s design. Baylis eventually saw little profit from his invention, and the sense of injustice spurred him to fight for greater protection of original ideas and stronger punishment for patent infringement.

Ultimately, he believed the British legal system failed to protect inventors, leaving them open to exploitation not only from imitators, but the “vulture capitalists”, “lawyers” and “CON-sultants” supposedly happy to profit from their insecurity.

”There are so many predators out there”

Eel Pie Island
The inventor in his Eel Pie Island studio

In 2003, Trevor Baylis Brands was founded to connect inventors with patent lawyers and help bring their ideas to market. From the 10,000 subscribers seeking intellectual property advice, only around 300 have been developed and sold to this day.

Three years later, in an interview with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Baylis discussed his grievances in more detail.

“There are so many predators out there. Anyone wanting to know about your invention must be made to sign a non-disclosure agreement. If they don’t, then don’t show them your product. If you are going to show your product to a large company, take a lawyer,” he said.

Baylis also identified a general lack of support for entrepreneurs, particularly when ideas have been lifted and re-packaged in an international market. “If a patent is stolen in a far away country, how can a small inventor know about it? Or do anything about it? They can’t afford to fight the big companies. National economies depend on innovation and inventions, so governments should be prepared to get involved and back up their inventors.”

 “Why invent if the idea’s just going to get nicked?”

In 2012, Baylis revisited his anxieties in an interview with The Independent. “How do you find people who copied an idea if they’re in the middle of China or Timbuktu?,” he said. “How do you sue them? What are the costs? In other words, why invent if the idea’s just going to get nicked?”

He also spoke of specific plans to bolster intellectual property rights for inventors. A so-called “Baylis break-out room”, he claimed, would see CCTV fitted into private areas in high street banks to film everybody present signing confidentiality agreements and reassure inventors their ideas would not be lifted.

Following news of Baylis’ death this week, Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, his constituency MP in Twickenham, paid tribute to the inventor on Twitter and touched on the causes Baylis fought for.

Ever since the wind-up radio failed to earn Baylis the millions he felt he deserved, he worked closely with the UK Patent Office to tackle unethical practices, and was awarded an OBE in 1997. In 2009, Baylis wrote to then-business secretary Peter Mandelson pushing for patent theft to be made a criminal, rather than civil, offence and received his CBE in 2015 for services to intellectual property.

However, as Cable alluded to, recognition was of equal importance to the inventor. Although Baylis believed the law deterred creative entrepreneurs from designing new products, he wanted to see a degree of celebrity reserved for inventors.

“You’ve got to celebrate inventions! Yes, reward inventors monetarily, protect their rights, but also give them their 15 minutes in the spotlight,” he told WIPO. “Make people aware of how inventions have changed lives. Do more television programs on inventors, show how they come up with their ideas. Inspire people.”

Business Advice intellectual property expert, and founder of Grid Law, David Walker got in touch to reflect on Baylis’ legacy and his influence on the entrepreneurs that followed him.

“Very sad to hear that Trevor Baylis has passed away. He was such a great ambassador for British inventors. Whenever I spoke to a client who had an idea for a new product or invention, they always talked about Trevor and his wind-up radio. I hope his spirit lives on and he continues to inspire future generations of inventors for years to come.”

Perhaps things are changing. Recent research revealed record numbers of small business owners taking intellectual property disputes to court, with 367 cases heard at the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC) in 2017 – a 28 per cent increase over five years. Meanwhile, one in three schoolchildren now want to become an entrepreneur. Baylis may have been a maverick inventor, but his activism encouraged other curious creatives to bring ideas to life.

Our recent webinar covered the basics of intellectual property for small business owners, helping entrepreneurs give their brand a competitive edge.

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Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.

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