UAS innovators need sound legal advice to protect property

By Patrick C. Miller | December 10, 2015

In a rapidly the rapidly changing world of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) where new technological innovations occur on a daily basis, patent attorney Melissa "Mel" Coombes believes that protecting intellectual property is vital.

Coombes—who works for the Lee & Hayes law firm based in Spokane, Washington—is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, a former naval aviator and an Army National Guard helicopter pilot. Her background and experience in intellectual property law paid dividends when representing XCraft, a UAS startup company in Idaho that appeared on the TV show “Shark Tank” October 2015.

In what ABC called “one of the most exciting moments of Shark Tank history,” company CEO Charles Manning and inventor JD Claridge came away with a syndicate that included all five business “sharks”—Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Kevin O'Leary, Lori Greiner and Robert Herjavec.

They offered XCraft $1.5 million for a 25 percent stake in the company and a $6 million valuation. On the show, the pair demonstrated their XPlus One UAS and a novel Phone Drone that turns a smartphone into an unmanned aerial vehicle.

Coombes described Manning and Claridge as savvy businessmen who went on the TV show after working with her to protect the technology they created.

XCraft’s plans to license its technology was one aspect that attracted attention of the investors on “Shark Tank.” Coombes noted that the company’s technology has many different applications, such as home and personal security.

“It’s a good investment if you’ve got something that is protected and can be licensed and is also something people would really want to license to multiple companies,” Coombes said. “The licensing fees are where people make most of their money. All the big companies license between each other and they make a great deal of money doing it.”

One of the reasons Coombes was attracted to patent and intellectual property law was because of her father, an inventor who never realized the financial rewards from one of his inventions.

“He actually got a patent and then sold the rights with a royalty agreement, but didn’t know how to enforce it,” she explained. “So he never saw a penny of his invention, which ended being pretty popular.”

What advice does Coombes have for UAS technology innovators?

“I would definitely encourage people to seek out counsel and think about patenting first and marketing later,” she answered. “With the recent law changes, it’s a first-to-file system instead of first-to-invent. If you come up with something, share it with someone else and they go file a patent on it, you don’t get protected. You have no rights to that patent while the person who filed it does.”

Most of all, Coombes advises finding an attorney with patent law experience and a good reputation. She noted that when someone sells the rights to an invention, there’s a statute of limitations that can prevent the inventor from pursuing licensing or royalties.

“It’s very important for the clients to know that we can protect their rights and we can also let them know what they need to know,” she said. “If you don’t have a lawyer you can go to that you trust, it can be a barrier to growing your business and making money off your invention.”


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