It has been said that there is nothing new under the sun. Quite often what seems like an original idea may have already been thought of numerous times, by many different people. For that reason, getting a patent on an invention can be a tedious task. However, there are steps that budding inventors can take to protect a unique idea prior to officially applying for a patent. Doing one’s own grunt work can save time. That time could translate into hundreds, possibly thousands, of dollars in savings upon deciding to use a patent agent or patent attorney to file for a patent.
Before spending time and money “reinventing the wheel”, do some research. Start by doing a Google search to see if the “new product” comes up under keyword searches. Search for existing products that may invalidate a claim that an invention or idea is “new”. The fact that a similar product already exists does not mean that an item can not be patented, however certain standards must be met to patent an invention that is similar to an existing one. After doing Internet searches to validate the uniqueness of an invention (or an improvement on an invention), visit the United States Patent and Trade Mark Office (USPTO.gov) website. Searching patent claims is free. The costs and fees for filing a patent can also be found on the USPTO.gov website.
The USPTO issues three kinds of patents: design patents, plant patents, and utility patents. Design patents are issued for inventions that are novel, non-obvious, and non-functional. Basically design patents are issued for improvements on the way an item looks without necessarily addressing its functionality. Plant patents are issued if one discovers and asexually reproduces a distinct and new variety of plant. Utility patents are the most common type of patent. They are issued if: an invention is considered to be useful for producing tangible results; an invention is a machine; an invention is an article of manufacture; an invention is a composition of matter; or an invention is an improvement on an invention from one of the previously listed categories. To receive a utility patent one must invent an item that is useful, novel, and non-obvious.
Once it has been determined that an idea is worthy of the costs and effort, start with a “poor man’s patent”. Basically that means keep thorough records of the idea. Write a detailed description of the invention. Note the date and time that the idea originated. If the invention was inspired by a specific person, event, or set of circumstances, include that in the documentation. Including a drawing, no matter how poorly drawn, with the written description of the invention would be wise. An inexpensive way to document the date and time and protect an original idea is to take a photo of all of the relevant information next to a time stamped periodical (a newspaper, weekly magazine, etc.). Make copies of the the invention description and related images. Then mail the copies to yourself. When the envelope containing the information is delivered, store it in a safe place UNOPENED. The sealed envelope with a U.S. postal stamp could be used as evidence should it be needed in a legal argument.
When working on a tight budget, one can file a patent without professional assistance. While it is not impossible to get a patent through without the help of a patent agent or a patent attorney, it is time consuming. Not following the proper steps could be costly. Provisional patent applications allow inventors to claim patent pending status with less work and fewer initial costs. However, a regular patent application must be filed within a year of the provisional patent application. When hiring an agent or attorney, careful research and fact gathering prior to hiring him or her can reduce the number of “billable hours”. Providing researched information to those working on one’s behalf reduces their work, and subsequently their fees.
Whenever discussing an idea or invention that has not been patented with anyone, it is best to have a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) in place. A NDA is a legal contract that outlines the circumstances in which confidential information can be discussed and shared. Reputable patent agents, patent attorneys, and companies will be familiar with NDAs and should have no problem implementing a bilateral NDA.