How to Protect Your Bright Idea

Business, Technology, Tips & how-to

You don’t have to be a professional “inventor” to come up with the next Sham-Wow, Pajama Jeans, or Shakeweight—you just have to have a great idea. Once you think of the next big thing, though, how do you protect your idea? First of all, don’t tell anyone about it. If you don’t talk about it, nobody can copy you. Beyond that, applying for a patent is the best way to make sure you get credit for thinking of it first. Whether protecting your idea from a greedy ex, or simply the possibility that more than one great mind will think alike, the patent is an inventor’s best friend.

You may be wondering exactly what a patent is, and how it protects your rights to your own ideas. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), a patent is a property right granted by the U.S. government “to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States.” A patent is granted for a limited period, and you must disclose your idea to the public at the time of granting.

Here’s everything else you need to know:

What Is Patentable?

The first thing to determine is whether your invention actually qualifies for a patent. The USPTO has a list of guidelines to get you started. Basically, your idea must be concrete, which means a process, machine, article of manufacture, composition of matter, or improvement on any of the above. You may also patent “ornamental design of an article of manufacture” or “asexually reproduced plant varieties.” The USPTO specifically states that inventions that are obvious, not useful, and/or offensive to public morality need not apply.

If your idea fits appropriately into the list of patentable things, the next step is to make sure it’s actually original. You will need to search previous patents (including foreign patents) to determine whether someone else has beaten you to the punch. Patent searches can be difficult, and the USPTO recommends contacting the nearest Patent and Trademark Depository Library to find experts to help you search. Though an assisted patent search can cost between $1,000 and $5,000, it’s generally considered money well spent. Even if you find someone else has already come up with a similar idea, you can modify yours so that it is still patentable.

How Do I Apply for a Patent?

When you are ready to apply for your patent, you need to decide whether or not to use a patent attorney, which is strongly recommended. However, if you decide to proceed on your own, there are numerous books and resources to help guide you. The basic steps to filling out a patent application are as follows:

1.    Document and diagram every step of the invention process, all aspects and modifications of the invention, how you came up with the idea. You may need to build and test a prototype, which should also be thoroughly documented, depending on the type of invention. Sign and date all documentation with two reliable witnesses.

2.    Prepare and file a patent application with the USPTO. You can file a regular patent application (RPA) or a provisional patent application (PPA.) The PPA acts as a placeholder and allows you to claim patent pending status for your invention at significant cost and work savings. If you file a PPA, you must follow up with an RPA within one year or lose the PPA filing date.

Sections of the Patent:

The key sections of a patent application include the abstract, specifications, claims, and drawings. It is the specifications which, with the drawings, explain how the invention is made (by the “best mode”) and used. The specifications include the title, background, summary, and detailed description of the invention. The claims section of the patent describes what your invention covers, and will help determine the scope of your patent. The drawings illustrate the aspects of the invention described in the claims. Patents may be filed electronically or by mail.

Helpful Tips

Consider the commercial potential of your invention before going ahead with the patenting process. Filing fees for a patent run about $1,500, and that’s without an attorney, which will increase the fees significantly. Be sure you have thoroughly researched the market and are confident in the commercial viability of your invention before proceeding.

Once you have filed your patent application, you will be assigned an “examiner” who ensures that your invention meets patenting requirements and that your application follows the required format. It can take several years of communication with the examiner before a patent is issued due to the very thorough process of determining what patents your invention should receive. Remember that it is unusual for any patent to be passed on the first try. The more carefully you prepare your application, though, the better your chances.

Finally, once you have your patent, you will be required to pay maintenance fees at 4, 7, and 11 years to keep the patent valid.