How the Northeastern Indiana Amish Serve as a Business Lesson about Patents

The Amish can serve as a lesson for business about patent strategy

I have been spending time in Northeastern Indiana–the land of my roots–to introduce my children to their aunts, uncles and many, many cousins.  Catching up with extended family has made it difficult to formulate a post in the past couple of weeks, but I have a few moments this morning and wanted to capture a thought that has been rattling around in my head since I arrived here.

Anyone who has spent time in this part of the U.S. will be familiar with the presence of the Amish as part of the cultural landscape.  My children, as city kids, are fascinated whenever they see a carriage with families traveling along the side of the roads.  However, I invariably consider about how stifling I would find it to not be able to interact with the outside world in the way that is familiar to me.  In short, I wonder what it would be like not to be able to be part of the modern world and immediately subtract all of this from my “happiness quotient”, which is the same view I have held of the Amish lifestyle since I was a child.

Earlier this week, I was sitting with my uncle, who is a prominent small town lawyer, about an Amish client of his.  He was going over some documents while we were chatting, and I said “So how do you talk to him?  Do you have to drive out to his homestead?”  My uncle laughed, and said “Oh, Jackie, they all have cell phones here.”  And just then, the phone rang with the Amish client, and they proceeded to have a conversation about his substantial financial assets.

After his call was over, my uncle revealed some very interesting things about the “modern” Amish of Northeastern Indiana.  Unlike years past, many have become very prosperous by engaging with technology such as cell phones, satellite Internet and generators.  One of his clients has owns a factory with 100 employees that makes the “Amish-made” products that are sold in Bed Bath and Beyond.  As he related this information, I recalled that the Amish houses we passed on the way up here looked very new, as opposed to the lived-in look from the Amish of my childhood memories of the 1970’s and 80’s.  (The carriages we passed on the road were certainly much more modern and well-appointed with shock absorbers and safety equipment than the one in the picture above.)

So what do the Northeastern Indiana Amish have to do with maximizing your businesses’ IP assets?  Well, these particular Amish can be analogized to companies that do not wish to maintain the status quo in their dealings with patents.  The business success of many of the Amish in this area is a result of their finding opportunities for prosperity even in the face of strict religious dictates.  All of these successful Amish business people comply with the requirement not to be wired to the electrical grid, but at the same time they have embraced alternatives that result from innovation in the outside world and, as a result, they may have even jumped ahead of their non-Amish neighbors.

For most of us, not being wired to the electrical grid would be viewed as an insurmountable impediment to prospering in today’s world.  Similarly, the restrictive nature of patents–that is, the viewpoint of patents as setting up prohibitions against business actions and the attendant costs of compliance–would seem to create barriers to those wishing to create and maximize business value.  This is especially true for those who may be “late to the party” in comparison to competitors that may have generated patents portfolios or for those who might have fewer resources to generate substantive patent resources.  I submit that by looking at patents from the perspective of what opportunities they provide, as opposed to the risks posed, companies can better prosper in an otherwise ostensibly highly restrictive environment.

Of course, there are risks in using creativity and innovation to prosper in a world of restrictive rules.  The Amish who use cell phones, satellite Internet and generators could be wrong about the religious correctness of doing so, and might end up in a very undesirable place for all of eternity.  Those business leaders who attempt to find business opportunities through strategic navigation and management of their own and the patents portfolios of others may end up spending a lot of money on patents or getting tied up in litigation (both of which could be the business equivalent of a bad fate of the Amish at the end of their lives).

The risks associated with these undesirable religious and business outcomes may be enough to prevent people and companies from capitalizing on opportunities and, as a result, prospering in a way they could not have otherwise.  Certainly, there are many Amish who chose to live in the more traditional manner as a result of their leader’s viewpoints that it is religiously inappropriate to capitalize on innovations, even those that do not clearly violate dictates laid down in the past.  Indeed, the Amish of Northeastern Indiana seem to be on the cutting-edge of their peers in other parts of the country, from what I have read.  Similarly, there are many companies that rely on their lawyer’s assertions that patent issues create risk and raise costs and, as a result, they should “not go there,” and take a conservative approach to dealing with patents.

My expectation is that the more traditional Amish congregations get along fine (relatively speaking) “coloring inside the lines” of their ancestors’ religious rules and are probably less concerned that they are making decisions during their worldly life that will effect them for all of eternity.  And, at the core, the comfort–or lack of risk–associated with making such conservative choices may be what allows them to sleep soundly at night, if not allowing them to be particularly prosperous in the worldly sense.

Likewise, those companies that decide to wholly avoid becoming substantively engaged with patent issues, both theirs and those of competitors, probably end up doing just fine, too.  These companies will also not have to deal with the consternation and cost of dealing with patents, a fact which may make make it easier for its business and legal leadership to sleep well at night.  But, as the Northeastern Indiana Amish show us, maybe there’s a way to find opportunity where others see only risk of “eternal damnation” in the business sense.  At a minimum, companies that embrace such an approach can at least likely say that they had no regrets, even if their choices ended up being the wrong ones in the eyes of the legal rule makers.  And, perhaps they can prosper in a way they otherwise not possible if they had followed the risk-free advice.

Photo:  Flickr/nanaaphotos