Thursday, June 14, 2012

Who Did More to Revolutionize the PC Industry? Bill Gates or Daniel Bricklin?

I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia known as West Mt. Airy. I still have fond memories of Saturday afternoon neighborhood touch football games.  Everyone would try to catch the ridiculously fast Stevie Lerner. One of those neighborhood friends was Daniel Bricklin.
In the spring of 1978, Daniel, then a Harvard Business School student, came up with the idea for VisiCalc, which was to become the very first spreadsheet program for personal computers.  Before VisiCalc, doing financial projections involved manually collected spreadsheets, every single cell of which would need to be recalculated if anything changed.  VisiCalc would automatically recalculate the entire spreadsheet to reflect any changes. What normally took 20 hours to complete with a spreadsheet could now be done in 15 minutes. Finally there was good reason to purchase personal computers for the office.
In 1979, VisiCalc retailed for $100 and became a big hit. Many observers credit the early success of Apple to the popularity of the 32 KB Apple II among businesses that wanted to use VisiCalc. In 1983, Lotus 1-2-3 was released for use on the IBM PC and other MS-DOS computers.  More powerful clones of VisiCalc thereafter continued to be introduced.
So what did Daniel do to protect the intellectual property associated with VisiCalc?
In 1979, when VisiCalc was first demonstrated to the public, patents for computer programs were possible but rarely obtained. Daniel’s lawyer at the time explained how difficult it would be to obtain patent protection and what the costs might be to  pursue a potential patent. Daniel made the decision to forego patent protection and instead rely upon copyright and trademark protection. It was not until two years later that the importance of this computer program was demonstrated in the marketplace and, in retrospect, it became clear that the decision to not file a patent application was a bad one. Unfortunately, the statutory bar—a patent application must be filed within one year the invention is used publicly or offered for sale to the public—now foreclosed patent protection for VisiCalc.
Nevertheless, Daniel has still done very well for himself and continues to develop new and innovative computer programs. 
As an intellectual property lawyer, I have learned some important lessons from Daniel. I do not want to be the lawyer who suggests to the next Daniel Bricklin that patent protection may not be a wise investment. I also wish that I had the speed to catch that pesky Stevie Lerner on the football field behind Hillel Goelman’s house.

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