As I took my seat behind that wooden desk on the lower level in 1982, I began my training at Olcott International.
As discussed in numerous posts, Olcott International operates in a highly specialized field, one that most people do not understand. My Dad had started his business in 1961 on the back of an advanced (for its time) computer program that could sort patent renewal data.
He offered this service to corporate patent owners that had live dockets of hundreds or thousands of registrations. Most of these required annual payments to maintain their validity. (Patents in the USA follow an extremely odd payment schedule, however). After the 20th year, the patent would come to term and fall into the public domain, meaning that anyone could read the patent, make the thing (whatever it was), and sell it for a buck.
Generally, whenever I met people socially, and the conversation turned to work, describing this computer and legal-driven business quickly became a problem. Most people have professions that can be easily pigeon-holed in simple terms, like “banker,” “teacher,” or “forklift driver.” Not I. In fact, it got so tedious for me to explain what I did for a living, I would typically bail and offer up that I was simply the hostess’ psychiatrist. Sometimes, I would even be asked if I was taking on new patients. I always made sure that I was available only on the most unsuitable night.
There are patents for all kinds of things. Some vital, like certain AIDS medications. Many are frivolous, like weird ribbing patterns on a condom. Most are a waste of money, patented by individuals for products with no commercial potential.
On the other hand, successful corporations, eg. Apple Computer, have dockets comprising thousands of valuable, revenue generating patents. Every one of them worth the $2,000 annual cost of renewal (thereabouts) annually in over 100 countries across this beautiful planet.
So what was the essence of my first job with Olcott International? Patents? No!
Around 1980, one of Dad’s most prestigious clients, The Wellcome Foundation of London asked him to entertain a related business: renewal of trademark registrations.
Trademarks are probably more familiar to most people. Everyone knows the logos for commercial products like Coca-Cola or Apple. Bear in mind that both the famous Coca-Cola logo as well as the words “Coca-Cola” are the protected property of the owner, in this case the Coca-Cola Company of Atlanta, Georgia.
The same applied to The Wellcome Foundation, a pharmaceutical company formerly based in the Welcome Building on Euston Road. They trademarked the name “Wellcome,” the “badge” (ie. their logo), and brand names for hundreds of pharmaceutical products sold worldwide. (In 1995, the underlying Wellcome Trust sold its pharmaceutical business to Glaxo).
The Wellcome badge.
Renewing trademark registrations internationally was kind of like paying patent renewals (or annuities as they are called) and, then again, not. Firstly, trademarks typically renew for regular or irregular periods of years (as the case may be), as opposed to annually for patents. Large international concerns like Wellcome with trademark registrations in countries great (like Australia and West Germany) and small (St. Kitt’s and Bophuthatswana) faced the burden of renewing hundreds of trade marks a year.
At Olcott International, we benefited from one of the world’s first computer programs to sort and organize patent renewal information to schedule timely payments. It was tweaked to do the same thing with trademarks.
So this was how I started my first real job at Olcott International. I wasn’t with the core business – the patent annuities section. That was handled by Mahesh, born in Kathmandu, Nepal, who had been trained by Dad some five years earlier to manage that business.
It was a pretty good job for a kid who had grown up staring at maps out of boredom in 4th grade class. I knew my Malawi from my Jewish Autonomous Oblast (an obscure part of Russia). My job consisted of managing renewals: assigning them to agents (sometimes the same one who handled our patent instructions); making sure that instructions were received; paying the agents; collecting the certificates; and invoicing the customers. Sometimes originals were requested, and I personally fondled all kinds of interesting documents, including German ones from the late 1930s festooned with swastikas.
Sometimes agents would get out of line and seek reimbursement for all kinds of ridiculous fees. They were replaced. Quickly. One African agent even billed one hour of time to “peruse” my simple letter instructing him to “please renew the five Ugandan trademarks as per attached.”
However, the real fun, for me, was not so much on the operations but the marketing side. The Wellcome Foundation sang our praises – we were able to save them thousands of pounds sterling per year. Then they sang our hymns to their colleagues in English churches every Sunday.
Where the hymns were sung.
One day, I was working downstairs, reviewing correspondence from Singapore when the telex machine started chiming. It was directed to Dad from an attorney in London who handled trademark renewals for a large British corporation, a household name. He had been referred to us by Geoffrey Foot, the trademarks manager at Wellcome. He inquired, would Olcott International be interested in doing their renewals worldwide?
Dad got on the phone and had a chat with the gentleman. Soon afterwards, he came downstairs to my desk and announced that I “have a mission.” Meaning I was going to London to close the deal. However, the gentleman made clear that there was one requirement: I would need to know trademark renewal law and duration periods. For every country.
If I missed one, Dad explained, that household name was not going to sign up with us.
I was still a newbie; I was in the process of learning the ropes. It wasn’t going to work for me to say, “I can look it up.” I needed to know the duration period of trade mark renewals from UK to Nigeria, Antigua to Anguilla.
Every industry has a reference text. Ours was “Trademarks Throughout the World.” Dad asked me for the tome on the bookshelf behind me. He set to work to copy and paste together excerpts as to the duration period from every country. As this was 1982, copy and paste here did not mean swiping some text and using Control + C or V. Copy and paste meant using scissors and scotch tape to create a long scroll-like document that could reach the floor when you let go of the end.
It kinda looked like this.
The laws in each country are complicated and subject to some complication. Some have an initial registration period of 7 years, and then renew for 14. Others have requirements to prove use in the form of a certified affidavit (by the Hague Convention) or an advertisement in a local journal.
After several hours work, Dad handed me the scroll, the whole nine yards. “Here,” he said, “memorize this.” My flight left the next day.
It was an evening departure from JFK on British Air to Heathrow. When I checked in, I got an unexpected upgrade to Business Class. And so I committed the scroll to memory while sipping cognacs across the Atlantic.
The next morning, I went to the attorney’s office like an average Londoner riding the tube. Overcast skies. Imperial-looking stone buildings.
The gentleman called me into his dark wood-paneled study. And right away, without any small talk, he peppered me with countries. Zambia? 7 years initial registration and renewable for period of 14 years. Bulgaria? 10 years. Japan? Iran? Singapore? Sudan?
After the 10th country, he stopped and smiled at me. I knew that he was done. Now was the time for small talk and as it was high noon, it was time for an English lunch with a pint. Or two. New client gained. Now I knew that I hadn’t just grown up in the business. But I could win at it too.