Have you ever had a great idea for an existing product? Were you dying to approach the manufacturer to suggest it? Do you think that the manufacturer would even listen to you? David Lazarus, an LA Times reporter, recently wrote about this subject. Mr. Lazarus recounts the experience of a Dr. Ron Aryel, who approached BMW with an idea about applying BMW’s gesture control system for handicapped drivers. BMW responded that it does not take suggestions from customers. Mr. Lazarus writes about another instance of a similar response by AT&T to a customer’s suggestion for improving its wireless service. AT&T essentially told the customer to “pound sand.” Wouldn’t you think that companies would be more respectful of its customers? In an ideal world, the answer would be yes, but in a litigious world, the answer is “no.”
It’s not that companies don’t give a hoot about their customers. but they are deathly afraid of litigation. A company may be working independently on the same ideas so it’s not an infrequent occurrence that a customer sues them for stealing a suggestion or idea. We, as intellectual property attorneys, can attest to this. We are frequently approached by people wishing to get even with a company that has allegedly stolen an idea. Do they have proof of this? Usually, no.
Jeffrey Shulman, a professor at the University of Washington, spoke to Lazarus about this problem and proposed that “this risk… must be balanced within an awareness that it’s crucial to promote and maintain customer loyalty and to encourage constructive feedback.” Lazarus suggests that companies should accept “litigation waivers” so that they may be free to consider customer suggestions and ideas. He believes that customers with idealistic proposals would gladly sign such a waiver. Perhaps, but in our experience most customers want to be compensated for their ideas. Our cynical side suggests that for popular products, litigation would occur anyway even though the initial focus of litigation would be the enforceability of the waiver. We agree with Professor Shulman, it’s all about customer management and feedback. Systems should be developed that promote customer loyalty, safeguard intellectual property, and promote feedback. Some customer suggestions may be worth the effort. Even giving a customer a small percentage royalty or a flat fee payment would be worth the expense if the idea is truly great. Litigation. when it occurs, is simply the cost of doing business as it is already.
— Adam G. Garson, Esq.