The problem with brilliantly creative and perceptive people is that they suck at business-ing… see, I don’t even know what the verb of business is. On the other side of that equation are businessmen/women who are very adept at business-ing. For the creators, their brilliant ideas, concepts and inventions are personal triumphs that prove humanity can overcome limitations of mind, body and environment, and which can make the world a better place. For businesspeople, on the other hand, those exact same brilliant ideas, concepts and inventions are perpetual long resonating ka-chings.
The problem, however, is that ka-chings can be extremely elusive if the idea that will make the ka-ching isn’t yours. Of course, businesspeople are ka-ching-making experts, so intellectual property, and creative and intellectual control is all fluid in their mind and morality, as you’ll see with these six creators who got screwed out of big money (which they most definitely deserved).
Nikola Tesla - Alternating Current
Nikola Tesla is considered one of the most brilliant minds of the last century that were forgotten in the annals of great minds. He was a futurist and he experimented with ideas and implemented concepts that preceded his era by hundreds of years.
Wireless communications? He was playing around with that old, tired bag back around the 1900s. Because Tesla had an insatiable thirst for everything and anything wireless, he also experimented with wireless electricity (wireless charging anyone?)
His wireless technology wasn’t even the invention to potentially make him a billionaire. No, the patent he held which could have made him arguably the first billionaire in history was for the alternating current. Don’t know what that is? Take a car key and shove it into a wall socket – that’s alternating current you’re feeling surge through your body.
No matter how brilliant and forward-thinking Tesla was though, he also happened to be a colossally idealistic dumbass. See, when Tesla came out with AC (that’s alternating current), Edison came out with direct current (what you see in weak-ass batteries). The problem with Edison’s DC was that it simply sucked. It couldn’t be sent far; the voltage it carried was low and in general, I reiterate, it sucked.
Tesla’s technology, on the other hand, rocked so hard it could’ve been an AC/DC opening band, and if you’re astute enough to pick up on that joke, I salute you (and if you picked on that one too, you, my friend, should come by the office so I can buy you a beer).
Well, anyway. Because Edison was a douche-nozzle and, instead of accepting the fact that Tesla had a superior invention, decided to go on a sycophantic PR tour electrocuting cute little animals. At the time, Tesla was being paid by a teeny tiny company named Westinghouse Electric (and when I say tiny, I actually mean huge) for the right to use his alternating current patents.
Tesla was making a mint too, getting paid a monthly stipend and royalties. The problem was that Tesla went on his own PR tour to prove the safety of AC which was taking a financial toll on the company. In danger of going bankrupt, Westinghouse asked if Tesla could relinquish his royalties for a limited amount of time and, as the story goes, Tesla tore up their previous contract on the spot in a show of appreciation for the company investing in him.
They paid Tesla a respectable lump sum of $5.4 million (in today’s dollars) for perpetual usage of the patents. The move saved the company but ended up costing Tesla billions of dollars in future royalties.
Bill Finger - Batman
No, this isn’t a weird sex act or a punk band name; it’s the name of the actual creator of Batman. Unless you are an esoteric academic of comic book world politics, you’ve probably only heard of Bob Kane’s contribution to the Caped Crusader. The thing is that the most Bob Kane ever contributed to the development of Batman was the constipated mental fart: “Bat-themed crime fighter”
After a solid day’s mental farting and no closer to an idea, he asked friend and struggling artist/freelance writer Bob Finger to help him out. I know what you’re going to say: “But Kane said bat-themed crime fighter” and you’d be right, but Finger fleshed the character out and gave him the tragic backstory that made him such a popular character. Not only that, but he also came up with a location (Gotham City), some of the most iconic Batman adversaries including Catwoman (meow!), Penguin (penguins don’t make sounds, sorry), Robin, and the Batmobile, amongst many other elements of the Dark Knight’s identity. Oh, he also came up with the moniker The Dark Night.
Finger then continued as a writer for the comic with Kane just offering the art (which was allegedly lifted from other publications), and his storylines fully established Batman as a favored comic book character. Through manipulation, however, Kane managed to leverage his agreement with DC Comics to get exclusive creative credit for the character and when Finger started telling people he had contributed to the creation of the Dark Night, Kane claimed he was a liar. Although the Batman franchise that he heavily contributed to became a multimillion-dollar success, Finger died in abject poverty and obscurity.
Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel - Superman
Back in the late thirties to early forties, companies could literally defecate on employees, light them on fire, and then extinguish them by throwing them out of a window without any legal repercussions. To say that the “talent” at these companies was underappreciated would be an understatement. Case in point: Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel who created the cultural icon Superman.
Before the famous Man of Steel made his debut, DC Comics convinced the two creators to sell the rights of the character for a measly $130. The check that they received as payment is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars today, being an indelible part of comic book history (and a great symbol of corporate greed).
After multiple lawsuits and the media revealing that the creators of the billion-dollar success lived very meager lives. Warner Bros. (that now owns DC Comics) agreed to pay them a laughable $20,000 pension and give them healthcare benefits for the rest of their lives. Coincidently, Warner Bros. was coming out with a new Superman movie amidst the controversy, but paying them had nothing to do with avoiding negative press… that’s sarcasm, by the way.
Sir Tim Bernes-Lee - The Internet
In 1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and helped create the first website in 1991 at CERN. Because I have mentioned enough sad stories of creators being let out to hang, I would like to let you know that Sir Tim never intended to make money off of his invention and has been an advocate (even today) of keeping the Internet free, available to the public, and preserving it as a tool for the advancement of humanity.
This man’s altruism literary shaped the modern world, as he had never filed a patent for his invention and thus never made any royalties from his idea. This made me wonder what the Internet would be like today if it could be legally controlled by a single company or corporation through the use of its patent. I’m assuming we wouldn’t have terabytes’ worth of people getting hit in the crotch with skateboards, bikes, yoga balls and beer cans… Actually, people love seeing people get hit in the crotch, so it would probably only have videos of dummies getting smacked in that specific region.
Alexey Pajitnov - Tetris
One of the most iconic, recognizable, and universally loved video games was the product of programmer’s Alexey Pajitnov’s big, beautiful brain. Unfortunately, Pajitnov’s big, beautiful brain and body created Tetris in Soviet-era Russia, thus making it impossible for him to retain any rights or make any money off his creation. Now, under normal circumstances, that would be that; the game would be sold by the Party, and the Party would then make money off of it, but what happened next reads almost like an espionage novel.
Henk Rogers, a game broker of sorts, would gather games from around the world and sell them to game companies in Japan. He travelled to the Soviet Union on a tourist visa but he had no intention of visiting the Red Square and the Kremlin. He wanted to take Tetris to Nintendo for their new portable game platform, the Game Boy.
After marathon interviews and meetings with KGB types and Pajitnov himself, Rogers got the game and then made the hard sale to Nintendo U.S., which was hell-bent on bundling the new gaming system with their famous Super Mario IP. They took the risk and, 35 million copies later, Tetris and the first generation Game Boy have become synonymous in the gaming world.
On a happier note, Pajitnov actually made money off of the game with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He currently runs The Tetris Company (with Rogers) and the game has proven its longevity by selling up to 450 million mobile copies.
Are there any other creators you know that were royally screwed out of their rights to their creations? Let me know in the comments section below!