I recently asked an IP attorney if he’s ever seen cases of stolen ideas. He admitted he personally had not. He’d heard the horror stories of course – big companies copying the little guy’s idea. Sure, people steal ideas, but there are a lot more great ideas than there are smart people who will follow through on them. The idea is only the very first step in a very long journey.
Like other patent attorneys, the one I spoke with often has inventors come to him complaining that they discovered “their” idea in a store recently — an idea they had ten years ago (but never did anything about it). No one stole the ideas, they just had the same ones. It is completely possible, and likely, that two or more people will come up with a similar idea at the same time. If it is a good idea that solves a problem, many people may be working on that solution.
Here are a few facts:
– You do not need a patent to manufacture a product.
– You (generally) do need a patent to license a product.
– You do not need to manufacture your own product.
– No one is going to “buy” your idea. You need to sell a business or a patent.
– Obtaining a patent is expensive.
– People and companies can steal ideas, but only if you share them without taking precautions (NDAs, etc.)
If you have an invention or the next big idea, you’ve surely thought about patenting it. Maybe you’ve researched the patent process, been told you need an attorney and shouldn’t tell anyone about your idea without a signed NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement). Great, that’s easy. There are many free examples of great NDAs online. Find one that is right for you and use it.
Many attorneys will gasp at this, but please know that you can patent on a budget. If you are still validating your market and deciding what you want to do (manufacture it yourself, license it, etc.), you can take some steps to protect yourself and start the patent process.
First, know the facts and steps you need to take:
1) The Idea. Most ideas are not “patentable”. They have to be a truly new idea and not obvious. On the flip side, many patents exist that are never used. A patent does not mean your invention is worth something.
2) Research. Before you even consider the patent journey, you need to do your research — not on how to patent, on what truly exists. Get on the net and surf like crazy. For example, let’s say you invented a new gadget that keeps rain off you, but it’s better than an umbrella. Pretend it exists and try to find it. Search for variations – both obvious and obscure. Search “umbrella”, “water repelling device”, “dry in rain”, and as many other words as phrases you can think of. Make a list and try different combinations. First do general internet searches, then go to shopping sites like Amazon and ebay. Note any item that is similar to your idea.
3) (preliminary) Patent Search. After searching online, did you discover your product doesn’t exist? Great, now it’s time for a patent search. You can pay a patent agent or reputable invention consultant to do your patent search, or you can do some looking yourself first. You can search using the USPTO site, or google patents. Use the words from your earlier search and then skim the results. I found that going directly to the illustrations saved me time.
Finding your invention is not the end of the road. There are other factors like the status of the patent you may need to know. If you found a patent, but not the product, why is that? Maybe the idea is not profitable, or maybe the other inventor never followed up. You will not be able to patent the idea yourself, but maybe there is an opportunity to improve the idea.
If you’ve searched obsessively for days and not found anything quite like your invention, a patent may be the answer. Many inventors would go directly to an attorney. It costs anywhere from $1500 to $10,000 to file a basic patent of this type. More complex inventions can cost much more. Filing is just the beginning. You will then need to follow up on communications from the patent office and defend your patent if it is granted.
4) Professional Patent Search. Depending on how comfortable you are with the search process, you may want to hire a professional to verify your results. There are patent agents, attorneys and invention companies who can provide this service. Costs range from $200 to $800.
5) Provisional Patent. Many attorneys skip this, but it is a great way to buy time if you do not want to spend a lot of money early on in the business. A provisional patent is an TEMPORARY alternative to filing a utility patent. It is a way of saying, “I have an idea, here it is, I claim it, but I’ll get back to you later with more details.” It is not the same as applying for the patent. The patent agents do not even review it. It’s a time stamp. The filing fee is about $200 and it can be done online, by you — if you take the time to learn a little.
Years ago, people used to mail themselves letters about their inventions, keep the envelopes sealed to prove when they had the ideas. This is no longer a valid process. Instead you need to file a provisional. It gives you one year to follow up with an actual application if you want to maintain that earlier date of filing (provisional filing date). The application is similar to an actual patent application, except you do not need to provide the claims section. The most important thing is to document the idea thoroughly. Draw pictures, write out any alternative ways you could make the invention. You can – and should – put lots of information in the provisional application. When you file the actual patent application, you can only retain that provisional date if the same idea is in there.
For example, let’s look at the umbrella idea. You’d draw your invention and describe it carefully. Maybe there is a metal locking mechanism in it. But, perhaps there is also a way to do it using a nylon tie of some sort. Put both concepts in your provisional. Put as many in as you can think of. This is why I think provisionals are great. Early on, you do not truly know what design is best. There may be cost issues, manufacturing problems, and/or customer preferences that will influence the final design. If you file the actual patent application, you have to know that final design. But, you can claim all the variations in the provisional. There are some great books on this that will save you a lot in legal fees – especially early on.
6) Patent application. So, six months down the line you have it all figured out. You’ve validated the market, created prototypes and even taken some orders. Now is when you pay the big bucks for a solid patent application. I do think you a good patent agent or attorney for this part.
I do want to point out again that you may not NEED a patent. A patent is certainly helpful, and potentially needed, when selling your business or licensing your product. The costs may not be justifiable for some inventions. For example, if you are an expert auto mechanic and you invent a $5 tool used for a very specialized repair on a certain kind of car, the market size is small. Spending $20k on a patent and then more if you need to enforce it would not make sense.
Patenting is a strategy and a philosophy. I received some good advice right before I almost hired an attorney. A business associate told me she’d built her company on a product without a patent. She and her partner chose to look ahead, put their energy into leading the market instead of defending it and fighting off anyone that may be coming up behind them. That philosophy resonated with me. It also made sense for what I was doing, but only you can decide what is best for your idea.