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The Better Mousetrap

If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals, February 1855.

You are an entrepreneur and the inventor of an all-around innovative product called the Better Mousetrap. Your competitor in this field is a new conglomerate, Universal Mousetrap, formed from the merger of US Mousetraps, Imperial Mousetraps (of England, with subsidiaries in all Commonwealth nations), and Anygrad Mousetrap, formerly the Anygrad Mousetrap Design Bureau. Universal Mousetrap also has a good relationship with the Mousetrap Company of Shanghai—once a subsidiary of Imperial Mousetrap, before Mao and the nationalization of foreign assets,

To start with, naturally, you need money. You make presentations to several venture capital firms, irrefutably demonstrating the technical superiority of the Better Mousetrap. You are nonetheless repeatedly turned down. This perplexes you until you realize, from certain cryptic comments and a long look through the hagiographies at Universal Mousetrap's website, that most of the Universal Mousetrap management, particularly the famous, dashing, well-tailored CEO, are graduates of a certain famous American university, which also supplies much of the management of these venture capital firms. You are asking them to betray their old friends and golf partners.

Very well, then. You will not be daunted. You seek out a smaller company, with management of less exalted background, and quickly obtain the funds you require. You build a factory in the Midwest, and start churning out sample Better Mousetraps to demonstrate to retailers.

Your first disappointment comes from your greatest hope: the ubiquitous retail chain, Tanto-Mart. Their handshakes are listlesss; they seem hardly to be listening to your presentation. They express doubts about your capacity to produce the volume they require. You produce charts, diagrams, ranks and files of facts and figures to show them they are wrong. You already have the whole chain worked out, from deactivated nuclear warheads to Tanto-Mart shelves. They are noncommittal, even after you show them independent studies demonstrating people's universal desire for a better mousetrap and their high opinion of yours. They contact you later to decline. Your mousetrap would have a shelf price 10 cents higher than Universal's. If you were just willing to outsource production...

But the Better Mousetrap is a sophisticated product. Cryptography is involved which it would be illegal to export; and there is the fear of patent violation and piracy. The manufacturing process for the mus capacitor is a trade secret which might be difficult to keep overseas.

You keep trying. You make local presences for yourself, especially in the "global cities," where sophisticated buyers love the Better Mousetrap. You start getting into the smaller chains and franchises on regional levels. From local supply you are building global demand.

Then one day you are out shopping at your local Tanto-Mart, and you discover a product called the Gooder Mousetrap. You buy it, take it home, and discover that it is in clear violation of your own patent. It is manufactured, according to the box, by the Gooder Mousetrap Company of Frontville, Kansas. You decide to sue. As you prepare, your lawyers find that the Gooder Mousetrap Company is in fact owned by Universal Mousetrap.

Your sales are already declining. Ad outlays actually seem to be decreasing your sales as the Gooder Mousetrap Company takes out competing ads putting its product forward as the cheaper alternative.

Universal's lawyers come into court and admit they have been in violation. They claim that they neglected to conduct a search for prior art before patenting the Gooder Mousetrap. They volunteer to withdraw the product from the market. They accept a fine and agree to destroy all stock of the Gooder Mousetrap.

You are elated. Gooder Mousetraps disappear from the shelves. Your Internet and mail-order sales increase dramatically, as publicity from the trial spreads the work about the Better Mousetrap. But outlet sales stay down. Why? You discover that the Gooder Mousetrap has reappeared in stores. You buy one and take it apart. It has all new workings; you are confident that it still violates your patents, just in a completely different way. You decide to go to court again.

You also decide that the time has come to capture the market you have always been aiming for: industrial mousetrapping, for grain storage, food warehousing, &c. Only no one is interested. You discover why: Universal is selling the Gooder Mousetrap in bulk, below cost, to industry. You manage to get ahold of one of these mousetraps only to find: this is not the new model; it is the old model you have already won your case against, all stock of which was supposed to have been destroyed. This is not just a temporary setback: since the Better Mousetrap, and consequently the Gooder Mousetrap, uses lasers to vaporize the carcasses and runs on 30-year plutonium thermoelectric batteries, buying an order of mousetraps is not a continuing expense, but an infrastructural investment unlikely to be repeated for decades. You start another suit against Universal Mousetrap.

The court judgments go again you. A media campaign has cast Universal Mousetrap as the victim of your incessant, litigious persecution. Media campaigns, of course, should not influence court judgments. You know that. Judge and jury, apparently, do not.

Although the only byproduct is drinkable water, and clean disposal by microsingularity is as simple as pressing the self-destruct buttons, an environmentalist group, PAP—People Against Plutonium—forms to protest the Better Mousetrap. It is easy to trace PAP's funding back to Universal Mousetrap; but few bother. Fake websites, fake blogs, fake packaged news reports from fake reporters soon start attracting a real community of real activists. PAP attains special notoriety after staging an event, video of which circulates widely on the Internet, in which a Better Mousetrap, disingenuously hacked to remove all of its extensive safety protocols, is swallowed by an elephant—which promptly explodes.

Universal Mousetrap offers a new product: the Saner Mousetrap. It differs from the Gooder Mousetrap in three respects: the box and case of the mousetrap are green in color; the words—true of all models—"Eco-Friendly" appear on the box; and it is more expensive than the Better Mousetrap. Catalogue sales plummet as the Saner Mousetrap becomes the connoisseur's choice.

The Shanghai Mousetrap Company begins churning out its own licensed version of the Gooder Mousetrap, the Mousetrap 3000. It looks, and is, crude; it would never sell on shelves; but it is choking your Internet sales.

With the cost of litigation to defray you cannot persevere. You put the Better Mousetrap Company up for sale. It is bought by Universal Mousetrap, which now offers the Better Mousetrap as one of its three lines: the Gooder Mousetrap, with a beige plastic case; the Better Mousetrap, with a white plastic case; and the Saner Mousetrap, with a green textured resin case.

Even as you buy a half-dozen Better Mousetraps from your former competitor to combat an infestation in your apartment you take a grim pleasure in the knot of PAP protestors outside—even now that their funding has lapsed, they have endured to annoy.