back to article IBM overhauls rewards program for staff inventions, wipes away cash points

IBM has rejigged a program that rewarded inventors at Big Blue for patents or publications, leaving some angry that they are missing out on potential bonuses. By scrapping and replacing the scheme, a source told The Register, IBM has eliminated a financial liability by voiding the accrued, unredeemed credits issued to program …

  1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

    Why why oh why

    For years, IBM has sponsored an "Invention Achievement Award Plan" to incentivize employee innovation. In exchange for filing patents, or for publishing articles that served as defense against rival patents, IBM staff were awarded points that led to recognition and potentially cash bonuses.

    And for each plateau achieved, IBM would pay its inventors $1,200 in recognition of their efforts.

    Shame they didn't include a bag of crisps and a voucher for haircut.

    But in seriousness, why would anyone agree to that? Seems like so many engineers are smart in their narrow field, but otherwise extremely gullible and naïve.

    I could understand if corporation had to contribute a substantial capital that led to discovery, but still without proper royalty split and company shares, it's not even worth to think about it.

    I am generally against patents as they are no longer fit for purpose, but if you have some good ideas, start your own business.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: start your own business

      Yeah, sure. Great idea. And, as you soon as you start garnering success and accolades, get targeted by Big Tech in lawsuits and lose everything.

      Great perspective.

    2. Bendacious

      Re: Why why oh why

      You’ll find that your employment contract states that any idea you have while working for IBM belongs to them. Perhaps not exactly those words but that’s the meaning. If there is any way to prove (or it’s very likely) that the initial effort and ideas behind your new business occurred while working for IBM, then their lawyers will take your business and possibly more. Unless of course you have an idea for a new type of ice cream and IBM are not getting into the ice cream business this quarter. I’ve worked with people stupid enough to ask their employer if it is okay to work on their big idea outside of employed hours. The answer is always no and if you are salaried then there is no “outside of employed hours” when it comes to valuable IP. Take the crumbs that IBM drop for you, or leave and wait a good while before starting your company.

      1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

        Re: Why why oh why

        That's why it's better to not work for such predatory employers or negotiate the contract so that it doesn't have such clauses (contrary to popular belief, if employer really wants to work with you they can be very flexible, but many people simply don't ask out of fear of not getting the job or being seen as "troublemaker").

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Why why oh why

          No. A lot of times in a larger company, you'll run into "this was written by the lawyers and we can't change it"

          1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

            Re: Why why oh why

            Nonsense. Sure they'll try that, but then you say that every contract can be changed. You can remove clauses you don't like (or your own lawyers tell they are not good for you) and send the contract back for revision.

            And if they are not flexible (rarely happens), tell them to go whistle.

            1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

              Re: Why why oh why

              With that attitude, you'll never get your complimentary unicorn.

              (I assume they have those in fairyland, which apparently is where you're writing from.)

        2. JacobZ

          Re: Why why oh why

          It's adorable that you think the contract is negotiable for anybody but the most highly desired talent. John or Jane Engineer is getting the standard contract or no job.

          1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: Why why oh why

            It's adorable elsergiovolador thinks that a patentable idea is sufficient for someone to "start [their] own company". Or that someone capable of producing one would want to start their own firm. That's the sort of idea my friends and I believed in when we were, oh, ten years old, perhaps?

      2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Why why oh why

        "You’ll find that your employment contract states that any idea you have while working for IBM belongs to them."

        OTOH if you were to leave and start a small business, say fixiing PCs, pulling network cables on contract or something and then, six months later, you suddenly have this bright idea...

        1. xyz123 Silver badge

          Re: Why why oh why

          My wife's cat has this idea for a vastly improved network cabling system that removes ALL current drawbacks........

          1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

            Re: Why why oh why

            Cat-9lives cable?

      3. Alistair
        Windows

        Re: Why why oh why

        That employment contract is why I stopped contributing to KDE and WINE back in 2009. My DM said that there was no issue with my contributions, however the TL's I was working with on both projects basically said, no, thanks. I never went above my DM, but the DIR we worked for was an IBM lifer with ..... shall we say an eye for all the advantages they could acquire.

      4. steviebuk Silver badge

        Re: Why why oh why

        Wozniak wasn't stupid. When Jobs said they should sell the Apple 1 Wozniak said he had to ask HP first as he'd been working on bits of it on their time. They said they weren't interested and he can keep the idea.

        The rest is history.

    3. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Why why oh why

      Right? That incentive is missing at least two zeros. And now even that pittance is gone.

    4. Doctor Huh?

      Re: Why why oh why

      It would seem that you aren't involved in the modern IP game. The name of the game is numbers; companies amass patent portfolios and cross-license them to each other. Nobody has the desire to sit and evaluate 40,000 individual patents for their and haggle over their relative value, so the measure used is one recognizable on any kindergarten playground - the count. You might be surprised at how small an idea can be to be patentable -- the standard at one company I worked at was that any idea that would take over 30 seconds to explain to a colleague met the standard of novelty for filing a patent. With the old IBM system, 3-4 patent filings for $1200 is in line with what a my former company was paying 20-25 years ago for just putting words on a page (a successful patent garnered another bonus). The patent process is expensive, and not every little idea merits the protection of that sledgehammer, so the company can buy some cheap insurance by publishing the idea to establish prior art.

      This game was a nice side-hustle for engineers. At that other company 20-25 years ago, a group could go to lunch and come back with a couple of ideas, type them up, and get a quick $600. Not all ideas are going to create the next $100 billion industry, and most ideas are not going to recoup the cost of filing for a patent (unless you are trying to cross-license your patent portfolio to Microsoft); most of the "innovations" were worth about what the company paid for them.

  2. David 132 Silver badge

    It's the IBM of the 21st century, what do you expect?

    Not an engineering excellence-led company any more. Between this and their shoddy treatment of their so-called "dinobabies" - employees over the age of about 24 to you and me - I honestly don't know why anyone with any pride would still work there, much less work outside their day-job to develop IP for the company. Even the old rewards scheme sounds frankly insulting - "you developed and patented a new algorithm that'll make $millions for IBM - here's $1200, you clever little chap." What's the new one? Accrue enough BluePoints™ and get a set of lead-crystal glasses or a souvenir pen?

    I feel really sorry for people who've put their heart and soul and careers into IBM. The company doesn't deserve you.

    1. Notas Badoff

      Re: It's the IBM of the 21st century, what do you expect?

      Well at least IBM are *explicitly* deprecating both innovation and employees "to remove all doubt" as the saying goes.

      Do 'Ratners' have fractional measures? As in, "this is a one-quarter Ratner" ?

      1. Vometia has insomnia. Again. Silver badge

        Re: It's the IBM of the 21st century, what do you expect?

        Probably not going to get quite the same PR, so I guess it's 18 carat Ratner rather than the proper 9 carat Full Ratner.

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: It's the IBM of the 21st century, what do you expect?

          9 carat? Pinchbeck.

      2. spold Silver badge

        Re: It's the IBM of the 21st century, what do you expect?

        A one-quarter Ratner being equivalent in value to the stopper on a sherry decanter.

    2. matjaggard

      Re: It's the IBM of the 21st century, what do you expect?

      As long as you don't disagree with software patents altogether (which as a UK resident I basically do) the old scheme was pretty good. Come up with an invention which need not be particularly novel and certainly need not have any potential for making money and you'd get some points. If it was novel you'd end up with more as it could be filed rather than published.

      Points mean a mind numbingly boring day job with a dinosaur company which in the rare event of it making some profit you're unlikely to share much of it. What do points mean? Prises!

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "potential bonuses"

    The keyword is "potential".

    As in, you keep on working, one day, you might see something.

    Unless you're fired for being too old first . . .

    IBM. It has hit bedrock, now it's digging.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: "potential bonuses"

      What's that old joke?

      Boss parks his new fancy car at work and sees employee admiring it. He says to the employee, "If you work hard and keep making targets and and meeting exceptions, one day soon, I can buy another one!"

  4. An_Old_Dog Silver badge

    Not a Complete Loss ...

    ... as I'm sure somebody in management was promoted for inventing the revised "incentives" plan.

    Policy innovation for the win! /s

    1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

      Re: Not a Complete Loss ...

      Falling upwards!

  5. ldo

    Antidisincentivization

    Such moolah being derealitized at the stroke of a pen ... it’s top management like you wot cause unrest.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Re: Antidisincentivization

      BAH! Let them eat cake!

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Glad I don't work for them anymore.

    Those years I spent there were the most stressful of my career. Mind you, I was assimilated, and their primary goal was to get rid of all the 'expensive' people (usual IBM practice of low-balling the support costs and make up for the shortfall by charging lots for project delivery).

  7. Yes Me Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Months???

    "We're told that IBM's invention review process could take months,"

    You have been misled. It can take years. And (as happened to me) if a patent is issued after you leave the company, your name is on it all right (imagine the glory!!) but you don't get a penny.

    Anyway, this is all part of the decline of a once great company that has been hijacked by glorified accountants.

    1. matjaggard

      Re: Months???

      Glorified?! By who? I think they're cheap so-called accountants. A real good accountant is well worth their salt unlike these people.

      1. Vometia has insomnia. Again. Silver badge

        Re: Months???

        I suppose that's the difference between an actual accountant and a "bean-counter". The former knows what they're doing, understands the benefits of investment and planning and so on; the other just wants a pat on the head from bonus-seeking veeps for slashing costs wherever they can get away with it and damn the consequences, it'll look like someone else's fault. Though I suspect the VP and bean-counter are often one and the same given the sort of stratospheric ego who reckons they can do anything without relevant training or experience because they're awesome, they wouldn't be VP otherwise, etc.

        I still shudder at the memory of DEC's sudden cancer of VPs: around 40 by the early '90s, already thought to be far too many, and IIRC 160+ and still growing by the time I left a few years later. Ironically, Greasy Bob was hiring all the senior managerial liabilities that IBM was firing at the time; this isn't IBM's first episode of nearly going down the toilet. DEC went down the toilet instead. I'm not sure IBM has the leadership to do the same this time, though, and "reassuringly expensive" won't keep them going forever.

        1. Lurko

          Re: Months???

          ""reassuringly expensive" won't keep them going forever."

          Hopefully not. The modern IBM won't be mourned.

          IBM's sales peaked in 2011/12 and have declined from about $107bn to $61bn, and profits from $16.6bn to a crappy $1.64bn in 2022. On an inflation adjusted basis, those P&L numbers look even worse. Management have of course been handsomely rewarded, and curiously the dividend has grown nicely even as sales and net income have withered - so basically sacking the good, well paid guys has given them cash for a dividend, but they've failed to innovate or grow.

          Sadly, with a brand like that, and still sales of $60bn, there's decades of decline left for management to feast on the corpse and shit on the workers.

    2. KeithSloan

      Miss treatment of talent

      When I was going through the Patent process at IBM early 2000's I became aware of a German employee who had left the company with 9 patents and was still struggling to get his payments of $1000 per patent. The IBM Attorney told me of a UK employe who has more patents that all the master inventors in Hursley put together but I don't think the name of the employee concerned has ever been revealed. IBM patents are a bit of a numbers game, it was always about having the record for the most patents in the industry. When a patent is filed you initially get three years of protection and then have to pay to extend, I always wondered if the the number of valid current patents were counted, if IBM would still have had the bragging rights. There was news at one time of a researcher in the States suing IBM over his patents but as stated you give away your rights when you join, so I never understood how he had a case. You are supposed to get a framed certificate of any patent and I had one patent, not a great one but good enough for Nuance to buy when IBM sold off its Voice technology and never got it, still could have been worse, at least I got the £1000 dollars. If people believe IBM management had any morals even in the old days, search out Lyn Wheelers blogs.

  8. trevorde Silver badge

    Service award

    Worked for a company which was bought by IBM. After 5 yrs service, I received a pen. We joked that, after 10 yrs, you got a refill. I left long before then.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Service award

      You were lucky. I received the pen after 10 years at IBM.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Service award

        I never even got the damned pen (despite 'qualifying' for it)!

  9. trevorde Silver badge

    Best reward

    A certificate of appreciation in a handsome plastic frame [Dilbert]

    1. cloth

      Re: Best reward

      Yes - it was a gold plastic frame of the filing - I have quite a few :-)

      Most "inventions" are nothing more than unique bits of code (at least in the IBM dev world - obviously not when you're talking hardware etc). They are pretty worthless as a single asset - but they get bundled up and sold or used to get money out of competitors. IBM is always amongst the highest filers - and it was always on the internal sales pitches to the employees - looks good for the share price.

  10. Unicornpiss
    Thumb Down

    Membership in Jelly of the Month club..

    I think many employees will be singing "I know it hurts to say goodbye, but it's time for me to fly.."

    IBM, once a foundational company in computing, seems to be doing everything it can to make itself irrelevant and not competitive these days.

    1. Lurko

      Re: Membership in Jelly of the Month club..

      Maybe they could merge with Fujitsu. They'd need a new brand to signify the new company's global read and competencies: Perhaps International Shitheads?

  11. Bebu Silver badge
    Windows

    Frequent Flyer points :)

    Its a bit like airline loyalty points, or similar retail programs (eg "Flybuys" in this part of the world) which after the demise of Ansett Airlines years ago her indoors calls them all "Fly by Night" points. If you even inadvertently collect this nonsense cash out at the earliest opportunity.

    If you have a really good idea while at IBM keep it to yourself and tell your worst non IBM enemy the details when you next meet at a conference or convention etc. If he or she uses the idea then either IBM's legals will devour them (revenge) or your enemy will make oodles of money (and won't be your enemy) and screw IBM on licencing fees.

    This miserable penny pinching that all these megacorps engage in will destroy them one day.

  12. JacobZ

    Blue Points

    The replacement system of Blue Points, which can be collected a number of ways, allows employees to exchange their points for a wide variety of cheap tat with an IBM logo.

    1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Blue Points

      Administered, of course, by a contracted "employee benefits" provider.

      (I have no knowledge of this, but I would be very surprised if it's not true)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Blue Points

      BluePoints are a pretty shit reward mechanism, but they don't just give you IBM logo-ized tat. You can get all kinds of stuff from pens to coffee makers to iPads and more, but the prices are often not competitive or consistent.

      When I was working there I found the best way to redeem BluePoints was for Amazon vouchers. 200 BluePoints would get you a $50 voucher, and I would collect them on a regular basis and then buy stuff from Amazon instead of the catalog.

      The catalog was weirdly priced. If I remember correctly an iPad retailing at $450 was 3500 points. If you redeemed the points for Amazon vouchers instead you'd get 17 $50 vouchers and change, equivalent to $850. So you could buy the same iPad from Amazon, and still have $400 in credit left over.

      1. xyz123 Silver badge

        Re: Blue Points

        Me: Boss I inventented an ACTUAL working FTL space engine. it also makes toast in the mornings AND solves your erection problems.

        Boss: have some BluePoints.

        Me: OK thats 5 points. only another 14,995 until I can afford that iPad stylus I've got my eye on.

        1. Benegesserict Cumbersomberbatch Silver badge

          Re: Blue Points

          Me: Boss I invented an ACTUAL working FTL space engine. it also makes toast in the mornings AND solves your erection problems.

          Boss: have some BluePoints.

          Me: No, sorry. I registered the patent in the name of a $2 company. Now I know it works, I've sold the company to some bloke from South Africa for $44b. That ringing phone on your desk is probably his lawyer. Now I've got enough cash for a toaster and any little blue pills I might ever need. I just came to tell you I won't be at work tomorrow.

  13. JoeCool Bronze badge

    $100 per "point" ?

    This is IBM's focus ?

    What's next, the tissue budget.

    I'd like to know the internal valuation of the patent work involved vs the cost of the reward program.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We had a similar scheme operated by Xexec. It went down in November, for a replacement that was supposed to come up this month - needless to say anyone with half a brain made a point of spending any points they had queued up before it went down.

    One shouldn't *have* to do such things, but common sense dictates otherwise.

    Remember that HR functions do not exist for the benefit of staff. They are there for the benefit of the corporation.

  15. xyz123 Silver badge

    This can actually be classified as Employer fraud.

    Basically you implement a "reward" system that doesn't pay out immediately, but sets a goal of internal 'points' then when a large enough group gets near to a payout, you cancel the whole thing.

    its very VERY illegal. it comes down to various employee rights as well as contract bait and switch.

    Like the racism/sexism/ageism issues, its just another in the long line of thousands upon thousands of lawsuits IBM is fighting.

  16. Jon Etkins

    Times have certainly changed. Back when our team’s patent (https://patents.google.com/patent/US8122282B2/en) was filed in 2010, we each received an immediate bonus in our paychecks, followed by another a few months later when it was declared “high value”.

    I don’t know when the immediate payouts were replaced by the points system, but it doesn’t surprise me one iota to see it now segueing to BluePoints.

    For folks that may only ever file one patent application, BluePoints may actually be better than patent tier points that will never reach the next plateau, but tier points that had already been earned should have been converted into BluePoints instead of simply being discarded.

  17. keithpeter Silver badge
    Trollface

    EF Codd

    So under the old system, Ted Codd would have got one point for his well known paper and perhaps another for the book?

    Cool.

  18. ecofeco Silver badge

    LOL!

    This will end well.

  19. steviebuk Silver badge

    IBM

    IBM now stands for Inconsiderate Bastards Much. They really have tanked and turned into arseholes.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Could be worse

    Could be worse, they could start rewarding with IBM stock.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not surprising for a company whose brain stem died decades ago.

  22. Tron Silver badge

    Tech start ups die at IPO.

    Post IPO, they are corporates and will never be anything else. You want to innovate, don't work for a corporate. You work for a corporate, you are not expected to innovate. Make your choice and stick with it. GAFA hasn't innovated for decades. It has maintained the status quo against all comers, which is what corporates do. That's why we have had no shift to distributed tech. Their failure to innovate has now made them vulnerable to the ultimate hostile takeover, by the state.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Wow, $100 per point is really measley Qualcomm splits the patent prize of $1500 among the inventors I'm surprised anyone at IBM is still writing patents the bonus is probably $10/hr ...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Same deal at IBM, there was a $3,000 bonus pool for filing a patent, $750 max per inventor. The points system was another bonus on top for serial inventors.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Internally, the program was known as a patent bounty.

    I ran a patent team within IBM for a few years, and it was a lot of fun. It served as a great team-building, bonus earning, context switching, and creative activity. For those who don't get why people would chase patents within a large company, most inventions (at IBM) are related to the work you do and therefore couldn't exist without your IBM experience or other IBMers. The process takes months because you have to vet disclosures and make sure that your idea is unique/novel, solves a real-world need, and is clearly written and annotated. Once you passed review, an army of lawyers came in to create the filing. It was estimated to cost tens of thousands in legal fees for filing and defending. For many of us, the process is too tedious and expensive to do on your own.

    The primary benefit was personal development as there's not a lot of opportunities to be truly creative in IT. Most of those involved in patenting were promoted faster because the skills learned in the process make you a better communicator, a better documentarian, and to my mind most importantly: It breaks people out of the cook-book IT process mentality.

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