Image taken from US Patent No. 6,655,077 titled “Trap for a mouse”
To paraphrase the famous quote of Ralph Waldo Emerson, if you build a better mouse-trap the world will make a path to your door.
If only it were that easy!
Inventors and entrepreneurs frequently take this mouse-trap quote all too literally, thinking that if they make a better product it will sell and make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Although inventors hate hearing this, the truth is that the invention is the easy part of the process because it is the only part of the entire cycle from idea to commercial success that is completely controlled by the inventor. Once you invent something market forces and the reality of life takes over. There are any number of reasons why an invention won’t make money even if it truly is unique and superior to available alternative solutions.
I am frequently told by inventors that they have done a patent search and cannot find anything that remotely resembles what they have come up with. While there are many reasons for not finding prior art, just because you do not find prior art does not mean that there is no prior art to be found. In fact, it would be extremely rare (if not completely impossible) for there to be an invention that does not have any relevant prior art. Said another way, unless you have invented something on the level of an Einstein-type invention there is prior art, you just haven’t found it.
Prior art is probably best understood as information that can be used by the patent examiner to reject claims in a patent application. This information is most commonly prior publications, such as technical articles, issued patents or published patent applications. It is also possible for prior art to consist of actions, such as a sale or public use prior to a patent application being file. But for the sake of this article let’s assume that the prior art we are talking about are issued patents and published patent applications.
It is absolutely critical to understand that a reference, such as an issued patent or published patent application, does not need to be identical to an invention in order for the reference to qualify as prior art. A reference can be used as prior art for whatever the reference explains. For example, if you design 5-wheel transportation device you are going to have to distinguish all other wheeled transportation devices, regardless of whether they are identical. So if a patent examiner finds a 4-wheeled transportation device that will be used against you as prior art. It will be up to you to explain why your 5-wheel device is not obvious in light of the 4-wheel device. The critical question will be this: Why wouldn’t it have simply been obvious to simply add another wheel?
Most inventors know that a healthy amount of paranoia goes a long way when dealing with an idea or invention. Ideas cannot be protected, so if you tell others they are free to use them unless they have signed an agreement saying they will pay you if they use your idea — good luck with that!
Inventions can be patented, but if you start telling others about your invention they could make and use your invention, which has immediate negative consequences for the patenting of the invention. Outside the United States many, if not most, countries follow an absolute novelty standard, which means you need a patent application on file before any public activity associated with the invention. Since March 16, 2013, the United States is also a first inventor to file jurisdiction. There are exceptions, but extraordinarily narrow exceptions. So narrow are the exceptions to first inventor to file prevails that they are hardly worth mentioning and not at all worth relying upon. So you really need to consider the law as rather black and white — file first before doing anything public.
Of course, the advice about filing first, which everyone should follow, begs the question about exactly how much paranoia is too much paranoia? After all, many inventors are going to need assistance from someone in order to bring their invention into being.
First, inventors need to know who can be trusted with your invention, and the short answer is not many people. This prompts many to attempt to secure a signed confidentiality agreement prior to disclosing their invention. By all means do try and obtain a confidentiality agreement if possible, we have free sample confidentiality agreements here on IPWatchdog.com that you can use at your discretion. Having said this, don’t be surprised if the other party does not want to sign. This is because prior to the signing of the confidentiality agreement no liability existed for the party receiving the information. After the signing of the agreement liability exists and there is no guarantee that anything of value has been conveyed in exchange, but liability has been created.
As any viewer of “Shark Tank” can attest, the variety of financial arrangements which are negotiated between inventor entrepreneurs and investors is broad. A final agreement is always the result of negotiation between the two parties. Unfortunately, many inventors go into the gunfight with a knife, so to speak, over-matched and under-prepared.
Unless you are a veteran of previous negotiation and thoroughly understand the potential value of your invention, you would be wise to engage the services of an attorney and/or a firm who has previously negotiated financial transactions for similar inventions. You don’t want to leave money on the table, nor do you want to have an unrealistic view of your work. Expert assistance can help you avoid either outcome.
The following descriptions are by no means exhaustive, but represent a sample of the strategies you might employ in order to monetize your work:
As the girl in the fairy tale ruefully remarked, “You have to kiss a lot of toads to find a prince!” Raising capital is not much different and is often a difficult, tedious, and frustrating process.
Common sources of capital worth pursuing include the following:
1. Potential Competitors
Companies within the same industry which will be affected by the introduction of the new invention are potential investors. Technology and software companies frequently buy small rivals solely to acquire innovative products. Since 2001, Google has acquired 127 companies, many of which were start-ups whose only asset was protected software. However, inventors approaching their potential rivals should do the following:
be confident that their intellectual property is fully protected and cannot be duplicated
understand that potential competitors will be fore-warned of a new, potentially market-disruptive product and take strategic moves to blunt the market effect
insist on a fixed schedule of deadlines and actions to take the product to market within a specific time frame
Your quest is finally complete. After hundreds of hours of effort, thousands of dollars, and innumerable worries of failure, you’ve finally succeeded. Your idea has become a reality, with riches and fame just around the corner. With the hard work done – envisioning, developing, and protecting your invention – you approach potential investors and buyers for capital to manufacture and sell your product. In the process, you discover one or more of the following:
the majority of people don’t understand the value of your invention or have no interest in it
some claim it is their idea
others try to steal it
those who see its potential want to pay a pittance for the product and leave you standing on the sidelines
Such is life for an inventor. From the years 2002 to 2012, more than 4.6 million patent applications were made and 2.2 million patents issued according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Yet, only a small proportion of the products covered by the issued patents become commercial successes.
I am a big fan of provisional patent applications, and they can be a very useful tool, but only when they are done right. When a provisional patent application is done poorly you not only don’t get any benefit, the filing potentially demonstrates that as of that moment you were not in possession of an invention, which could be catastrophically bad.
Poorly done provisional patent applications are almost certainly useless for their intended purpose, but can be used against the inventor later as a weapon to demonstrate there was no invention, or at least that the invention had not ripened past the idea stage at the critical moment the invention was memorialized at the time of filing the provisional patent application. Therefore, it is critically important to understand what is required in a provisional patent application and not to fall prey to those who knowingly or unknowingly prey on unsophisticated inventors.
First, let me point out that there are some operating on the Internet who are peddling provisional patent courses and/or various methods for drafting provisional patent applications. Inventors and businesses need to be very wary. Not all of those courses and methods are bad, but there are at least some that have been put together by inventors who think a few patent applications make them experts on drafting patent applications. Listening to one who is not a patent attorney or patent agent about what needs to go into a patent application is a little like needing brain surgery and instead of seeking a brain surgeon asking a psychiatrist to perform the surgery since they are familiar (at least to some extent) with how the brain behaves. The first rule of brain surgery is that you need a brain surgeon! Similarly, the first rule of drafting a patent application is that you need the help of a patent professional, which means a patent attorney or a patent agent.
So you have an idea and want to get a patent? There are a number of things that you need to know about the invention and patent process that can help you focus your efforts and know what obstacles lay in front of you.
The first thing to know is that you cannot patent an idea. Many people will have great ideas, but will not be able to put that idea into a package appropriate for a patent because there is no invention, only a concept. To be sure, the idea is the all critical first step in the invention process. After you come up with the idea or concept you now need to put together a game plan on how to carry that idea through. The idea and game plan together form what the law calls conception.
Up until March 16, 2013, conception was quite an important legal concept in the United States because under U.S. law the patent was awarded to the inventor who was first to conceive. See Brave New Patent World: First to File Becomes Law. Although that sounds easy and has been romanticized by many, there were strict legal rules about the proof required for the first to conceive to prevail over the first to file and ultimately be awarded the patent. For the most part those types of issues are now irrelevant. Effective March 16, 2013, the United States is now a “first inventor to file” country, so filing a patent application as soon as you have something tangible enough to qualify as an invention is of critical importance.
But rushing to file is putting the cart before the horse. First you have to get from idea to invention and then to the patent process.
How to Write a Patent Application is a must own for patent attorneys, patent agents and law students alike. A crucial hands-on resource that walks you through every aspect of preparing and filing a patent application, from working with an inventor to patent searches, preparing the patent application, drafting claims and more.
Without hesitation I recommend One Simple Idea and think it should be required reading for any motivated inventor. There is so much to like about the book and so much that I think author Stephen Key nails dead on accurate. The book is educational, information and inspirational. For the $14 cover price it is essential reading.
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