Diary of a Green Startup: The mystery of European Intellectual Property
A few years ago I was living in Brussels, Belgium, loving it and wanting to stay. However, I quickly learned that as an American, I had no hope of getting a job, so I figured I’d start a business. Consulting seemed to be the easiest route in and I dug out a seminar series I used to run in San Francisco.
Then I went on the Internet and to my absolute amazement, I found very few competitors. On top of that, I’d met a woman whose job at the Bureau d’Enterprise, was to help new businesses get set up in Belgium. I thought I was so lucky! Marie-Claire told me there were forms to fill out and fees to pay but I assumed knowing her would make things easier, so I didn’t worry too much.
I then went off to the Netherlands to visit friends. One, Magda, is a psychic healer, a good business because the Dutch government has included psychic healing sessions on the list of therapies it pays for. And since at any given time, half the Dutch workers were off on stress leave, her business was booming.
But instead of encouraging me, she said she used to give seminars but gave it up because one of her students copied her materials, recorded the spoken part, then set up his own seminar exactly like hers. He had no background in psychic healing, while Magda had gone to the Stanford of psychic schools, the Berkeley Psychic Institute. Naturally, the first thing I asked is if she’d sued him. She’d tried but was told by a lawyer that she had no case.
In the photo: Grande Place – Bruxelles – Photo credit: Hernán Piñera
Back to Brussels. I told this sad tale at dinner, ranting about the lousy Intellectual Property laws in the Eurozone. As it turned out, a guy who I thought was a poet was actually the EU commissioner responsible for writing IP law. He was quite offended and insisted that EU IP laws were even more stringent than American laws. The ensuing discussion revealed that before he started this job, he’d known nothing about intellectual property. He had a liberal arts degree from Oxbridge and then spent some time teaching. I was the only American at the table and no one else cared about IP law. I dropped the subject because my next question would have been, “Why are you writing these laws?” and I’d already stomped on his fragile ego.
The mystery of how IP was handled in the Eurozone was solved when I was browsing through a newsfeed from the EU. While the poet was indeed spending his days writing laws, there was little interest in enforcing them.
Murder and terrorism were the most serious crimes and would be aggressively investigated. At the very bottom of the enforcement effort was IP violations and traffic tickets, neither worth wasting an official’s time to investigate. Interesting, because I knew two guys from the Spanish Guardia Civil seconded to Brussels for a terrorism task force who were furious that some of the terrorists who blew up the Atocha train station in Madrid were openly lounging in tea houses in Brussels.
Another trip to the Netherlands. I was at a party moaning about my seminars to a Dutch woman I’d known for years. Instead of sympathizing with me on the lack of protection for my seminars, this mild-mannered woman shouted at me, “You’re just as greedy as the rest of the Americans! All you can think about is making money! If you have information that would help people, it’s your duty to share it for free!
Why didn’t I think of that when I was paying the world’s most expensive graduate school for teaching me the basics that I was sharing in my seminars?
Even though I’d already decided it wasn’t worth trying to present seminars in Europe, Marie-Claire was determined to help me. She brought me a stack of papers that had to be filled out — about a half of a ream’s worth. I wasn’t permitted to do this myself. I had to have a Notaire (cross between a notary and a lawyer) fill out the forms. The first phase of the process was spread out over three to six months. And then there were the fees for the bureaucrats and the cost of the Notaire. She also told me that I’d have to prove that I was an expert on my subject. I would be tested on my knowledge — but by whom?
By the time she’d finished explaining the details of setting up a business in Brussels, I realized the Belgians had used Kafka’s novels, which I had thought to be fiction, as their guide for setting up their bureaucracy.
I didn’t get far enough to have to figure out Belgian taxes, but those on small businesses are so onerous that few can get off the ground, much less survive. Only cash-intensive businesses like restaurants or one-person construction companies manage to stay under the radar of greedy governments.
But probably the most insidious problem with starting a company in Europe is that entrepreneurs are not admired nor supported. The best jobs are high-level government jobs, especially with the EU Commission. The poet who writes IP laws makes more than most Silicon Valley programmers and he doesn’t have to pay taxes.
Less fortunate but with even more job security are the individual country’s bureaucrats. All those forms required for starting a business have to be stamped. One stamp on each form can make up the entire life’s work of a fonctionnaire. Of course, in between stamping is the joy of telling some poor soul they have gotten the paperwork out of order and must start over again.
In the photo: Park(ing) Day San Francisco – Photo credit: Steve Rhodes
Back in San Francisco, I decided I would put my seminars aside for a bit and instead finally fulfill my dream of saving the world by developing a model for pro-social businesses. I combined my education and my experience working in Fortune 500 companies with my attempts to help set up non-profit organizations, both in the US and Europe. My goal is to show how to use pro-social businesses to provide income and dignity to those in need.
I still love Belgium. I still want to live and work in Europe. But things are even worse now than they were when I was there. I think it’s way past time for Europeans to embrace entrepreneurship, to support those brave few who want to create wealth and save the European Union.