Roberto CoelhoBy Roberto Coelho|June 14, 2022|7 Minutes|In Opinion


Lessons for the underdogs

An expert from the intangible property field; David Gilson, a partner at Webber Wentzel, is in the closing phases of his professional career as he nears retirement. On a blistering hot Johannesburg December day, the Pretoria based attorney opens as he shares treasured lessons learned from a 30-year career as a patent attorney.

Some background to the requirements of becoming a patent attorney is two degrees, technical and law, and two sets of board exams. From the other end of the spectrum, Gilson looks at the retirement process, however, his insight is invaluable.

“I deal with bulk cases, and not individual ones, focus is on all international cases.”

As his career is uniquely different from case-to-case attorneys, Gilson has identified macroeconomic global trends valuable for both, experienced entrepreneurs, and those just starting out. “It’s interesting how patents come in waves. The 90s was microwave technology and CD technology.”

One may feel this is obvious however very few capitalize on this knowledge.

“There would be a lot of work in those fields for a lot of years, but it fizzles out as the technology matures.”

Using the microwave as an example, it was invented in 1946 yet first sold in the United Kingdom in 1974 and continued to grow exponentially until plateauing in the 1990s.

Most may feel if they did not invent the microwave the opportunity was lost, but this is not the case. There was continuous development for decades where new entrants found new opportunities.

Hence, the lesson; identify new technological trends and determine whether there is a future and if there is a future find new efficiencies in that market.

“10 years ago, streaming tech became the big thing. For a long period of time, there was a lot of work on alternative energy, but it goes through dips and troughs, depending on what is going on in the world.”

After technology in the microwave matured and new inventions were patented new businesses are possible. Thus, if one missed the rise of the microwave, do not fret, further opportunities arise as the world develops.

Smartphones provide a useful example, designing and developing a smartphone is expensive and complex. However, one can benefit from the growth of indirect markets, such as selling smartphone covers.

New inventions create new markets; thus, an inventive society is a growing society. Not necessarily because of the actual invention, but rather the indirect benefits.

A new Apple factory results in a new town requiring new infrastructure, new bakeries, and new supermarkets leading to a new growing area. Looking at South Africa and the entire African continent, future growth is dependent on becoming an inventive society.

“There is that assumption that if you read enough bad news no one is making anything in SA

anymore, and it is really not true, there is a lot of really innovative people out there. “

Fortunately, the realization to invent is not new and South Africans have constantly looked to push the boundaries of what is possible. Unfortunately, parallel to the inventive spirit of many is the implementation of poor policies by others.

“One sad thing is mining tech has peeked, previously there was a lot of work.”

The large demand for mining patents has disappeared, and the current status quo of mining patents is to be requested from Canada, USA, and Australia, and no longer South Africa.

Furthermore, if invention brings exponential growth, closure brings exponential decline.

Unfortunately, this is a movie seen before across South Africa. The impact of the ‘10 last years’ is immeasurable.


With our economic and globally relevant decline, international patents are only registered in South Africa on a mid-tier basis. We rank closely to New Zealand and Eastern European Block countries.

Gilson’s experience shows a declining globally relevant South Africa, with a small glimmer of hope that new inventors are maybe able to turn the ship around.

A warning for South Africa is not an appropriate close to Gilson’s advice, instead, we discussed a topic relevant to global technology.

He shared a story of a global megacompany that failed to look past its own nose.

“There are these really successful highflyer companies, and when something goes wrong, somehow, and they blow themselves up.”

Kodak provides the perfect case study, well known is the warning signs of the company’s failure, and a less well-known tale is the legal battle between Kodak and Polaroid.

The highlights of the trial are Polaroid, the inventive smaller business that created the instant photo camera, sued Kodak for a breach of patent.

“Kodak just decided we are 100 times bigger than Polaroid and just use the technology.”

David versus Goliath, it seemed unlikely Polaroid would win as Kodak could throw money at the case. “Commentators believed Kodak would win because they would throw so much money at the trial.”

Yet, the judgment was unexpected, and Polaroid won, Kodak was ordered to replace each instant camera sold, destroy them, and replace them with a regular film Kodak camera.

“It was a gigantic judgement because kodak thought if they are bigger, they could just walk all over Polaroid, usually that works but sometimes it doesn’t.”


The possible modern-day reincarnation of this case is Epic Games versus Apple, with Epic Games appealing to the judge’s veridic that Apple is not a Monopoly.

Gilson’s advice is the mega-cap-tech giants of today, Apple, Meta, Amazon, Tesla, and Google must not forget the fallen giants of the past. The underdog always has a chance.

For the African entrepreneurial underdogs, Gilson’s valuable road map may be followed to avoid falling into society’s traps.