Mandy Haberman was visiting a friend when the idea came to her. A mother of three, she watched her friend’s toddler running across the front room holding his trainer cup upside-down, leaving a trail of stains on the carpet.
It was an incident all too familiar to Haberman, but perhaps because it wasn’t her child or her carpet, she was able to look at it more objectively. ‘I thought, this is ridiculous,’ she states. ‘What you need is a cup that seals by itself when it’s not in use.’
From this simple idea – and hours of ‘playing around with bits and pieces’ in her kitchen – Haberman came up with the prototype for what is now known as the Anyway Up Cup.
She took it to a trade show, secured £10,000 worth of advance orders, and found herself in business.
The Anyway Up Cup joins a long list of classic British designs, from the Catseye and red telephone box to the TomTom sat nav. Some would add the iPod to the list, designed by a team led by Briton Jonathan Ive.
All of the above have been successful because of their keen awareness of the user’s needs and problems, according to Antonia Ward, design knowledge manager at UK strategic body the Design Council.
‘Great design is about usability. Something that’s easy and intuitive to use and looks beautiful,’ she states. What it’s not about is making something trendy. ‘There are lots of things that look really cool but don’t work,’ Ward adds.
It doesn’t always happen so smoothly. Haberman’s efforts to commercialise the Anyway Up Cup have been frustrated by problems at almost every turn.
After coming up with the prototype design in 1996, Haberman realised her best solution was to license it to a large manufacturer that would be able to cope with the high demand she anticipated.
‘I visited 18 companies to offer them a licence,’ she says. ‘Everybody was excited about it: a non-spill cup was like the Holy Grail. But when it came to the crunch, no-one took a licence.’
This reluctance, which Haberman now puts down to risk aversion, left her with no alternative but to manufacture the product herself. After all, she knew ‘every mother wanted it’. But having quickly secured advance orders, she found herself committed to fulfilling them before she’d had time to think about designing a product around the concept she’d patented. The product she came up with ended up looking ‘very much like any other training cup’, which she now admits was ‘a disaster’.
There were other problems in store. Haberman’s manufacturing partner went bust, meaning a lot of stores de-listed the product. Most damaging of all, however, was a series of patent infringements, beginning in 1998, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Though she has successfully defended the Anyway Up Cup in court against much larger companies, Haberman’s confidence in the patent system has been badly dented.
‘People tend to be naïve when it comes to IP,’ she states. ‘They think that if you have a patent granted, that’s it, off you go. The reality is that it’s just a piece of paper. It gives you the right to go to court at your own cost, at your own risk.’
A dubious defence
According to Haberman, a patent may be granted, but is not truly tested until it reaches court. An infringing company will frequently claim the patent is invalid. ‘They will dig and dig, desperately trying to find something that will knock your patent out,’ she warns.
If real protection comes from always staying one step ahead of your competitors, design should be seen as an ongoing investment rather than a one-off cost.
IP protection: a quick guide
Patents and design registration are the two legal defences your product has against plagiarists. In essence, patents protect ‘new’ and ‘inventive’ ideas, while design registration protects the look of your product, provided it is ‘new’ and ‘of individual character’. Jan Vleck of law firm Reddie and Grose is vice-chairman of the design committee at the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA).
‘Patents offer broader protection, but they are harder to get and more expensive,’ says Vleck. ‘With patents, you end up with a document that can be anything from four to hundreds of pages long. With design registration, you just send a couple of pictures, the Patent Office files them, and you get a certificate.’
Vleck says a 20-year UK patent can cost between £3,000 and £5,000, while design registration for the whole of the EU costs between £700 and £1,000. However, the costs of enforcing patents or design rights in court can be crippling. Insurance exists for litigation, but it doesn’t always cover the entire cost of going to court, as Mandy Haberman, inventor of the Anyway Up Cup, discovered.
‘I was assured by my broker that there would be enough money to settle three cases,’ says Haberman. ‘When it came to it, it was woefully inadequate. A couple of meetings with my lawyer and a cup of tea and it was gone.’
On the bright side, Vleck notes that it is only the borderline cases that come to court. If your case against an infringer is strong enough, a ‘stroppy letter’ from your lawyer could end your worries.