Why IP Rights are important - the story of the ballpoint pen

Simone Giacobbe

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This is the first article in our “IP for SME’s” series, and is the story of Ladislao Bíro, a Hungarian journalist, and that of an invention that changed the world.

In the early 1930’s, fountain pens were the writing instrument of choice. However, this type of pen uses a free flowing, wet ink and they were messy to use and smudged easily - particularly for left-handed users.

As a journalist, Bíro noticed that the ink used in the newspaper industry dried quickly, which left the printed paper smudge-free and neat. However, he also knew that print ink is unsuitable for fountain pens due to its high viscosity.

So, Bíro, working with his brother György, a chemist, came up with the idea of the ball pen, which he patented as HU120037 in 1938 before fleeing to Argentina (Bíro was an Hungarian Jew). 

In 1944, he and his business partner Mayne started their own company called Bíro, Mayne and Bíro (an SME according to today’s definition) to mass-produce the ballpoint pen. The company’s first ballpoint pen factory was located at 3040 Oro Street, Buenos Aires, Argentina and at the same time as launching their pen, they also registered the trade mark for their Birome (from the initial letters of the names of the partners). However, in that first few months of business, the Birome never really achieved mass market success.

Therefore, in 1945 Bíro licensed his rights to the ballpoint pen for $2m (equivalent to £12m in today’s money) to French Baron Marcel Bich (born in Turin in 1914), who was founder of the French company BIC (from the first three letters of his name). Bich further developed the Birome using technology capable of shaping stainless steel down to 1mm for the nib, re-designed it using plastic for the body of the pen making it cheaper to manufacture and developed a new low-viscosity ink that neither leaked nor clogged. Launched in 1950, the BIC Cristal was an immediate success: the 100 billionth was sold in September 2006 and a BIC Cristal is part of the permanent collection of the MoMA in New York.

Still today, in many countries around the world, the ballpoint pen is commonly known as a “Biro”. Bíro’s invention, and the improvements of those who picked it up and further developed it, changed the world forever. In 1950, the world literacy rate was just over 35% and in 2022 it had grown to 87% - which means that there was a steady increase in the demand for affordable, versatile and accessible writing pens – and that demand could be met at once.

So why are IP rights important to an SME business?

It takes a lot of ingenuity to achieve sustained economic success, but it also takes the right mix of intellectual property rights to really succeed:

  • patents for the technological development
  • industrial design for the shape and look of products
  • trademarks for logos and commercial names.

Intellectual property is classed as material assets with their own commercial value that help realise return on investment, in the short and long run. They also facilitate continuous development, as the idea of one ingenuous person is the starting point for the next.

More about the importance of SMEs to protect their IP rights can be found in this short publication by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

I’m just a small business with limited resources – what do I need to do?

Intellectual Property is a complex world, and knowledge is needed in order to make the right choices, develop the right strategy and follow the often complex legal and procedural steps on the way to adequate protection.

Larger companies may have an in-house legal counsel who can follow an idea as it develops through R&D, innovation, production and marketing - all the way through to product launch. More often than not, an SME does not have the financial resources for this but the good news is that you can find an outsourced IP partner with the necessary expertise.

And this is where we can make the difference. At Murgitroyd you will find:

  • Attorneys with an in depth technical and industrial experience in almost all fields. We pride ourselves on our industry-specific knowledge that empowers and elevates many innovators and brands.
  • A multilingual capability that facilitates direct interaction with inventors based in Europe, in their own language. We are one of the few IP firms in the world with a dedicated translations team which ensures our translations are not only of the highest quality but are also technically accurate.
  • The help that you need to protect and unlock the full potential of your innovations and ideas – not just in your country, but around the world if necessary. We can be a one stop shop for European and most National Patent Offices. Besides having offices in France, Italy, Germany, UK, Ireland and Finland, our Europe-based national attorneys are likely to have right of representation before the National Patent Office of the EPC Member State of your interest.

Ask for help

For over 45 years, we’ve built a reputation trusted by innovators and businesses to realise and protect the true value of their intellectual assets. If you or your company have any questions regarding intellectual property, please contact me directly or complete this form and we will be in touch.

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