How to Patent an Invention Idea | Moving from Idea to Patent
By now everyone has undoubtedly seen the late night television commercials, and the online ads offering to help you patent your invention idea. Despite what these advertisements suggest, you cannot patent or protect an idea, but don’t despair. The idea is the first critical step toward being able to obtain a patent, and in my experience many inventors think they only have an idea and are not yet at the invention stage when, in fact, they really do have an invention that could be protected.
In order to get from where you are to where you want to be you will need to move from idea to invention and ultimately to a patent application, but the idea gets the ball rolling. But in order to get that ball rolling what you need is a strategy to help you move past the idea and learn to describe your idea with enough specifics so that it no longer is what the law would call a “mere idea.” In a nutshell, if you can describe your idea with enough detail you don’t have an idea, what you have is an invention, or at least the makings of an invention. For example, an idea is this: I want to catch mice. An invention is a mousetrap.
It is critical for inventors to document and expand upon any idea. If you continually add more details you will at some point cross over the idea/invention boundary and be squarely on the invention side of the line, which is the goal. What you want to do is explain your idea, as well as any and all aspects and alternatives associated with your idea. This will then get you toward approaching the point where it becomes specific enough for it to be considered an invention. When you reach this point you have something that can be protected and patented.
The patenting process can be very overwhelming and quite costly to an inventor who wishes to secure patent protection for their invention. But there are certain steps of the process that should not be neglected because of financial constraints, otherwise your efforts could actually be counterproductive and work against you in the end, not to mention your money will be wasted.
Regularly, we have inventors come to us for assistance with their inventions but start their conversation with “I have a very limited income.” With the economy being as tough as it is for as long as it has been since the economic downturn, increasing numbers of people are dusting off their old invention ideas and working on them in hopes that a new invention will help get them out of debt and to a better place financially. The problem is these inventors are also often the ones that have little disposable income with which to protect their inventions.
An all too typical conversation with inventors with limited funds starts like this: “I need it to cost under $600, because that is all I have to spend.” But the filing fees payable to the USPTO alone are $130 for a provisional patent application (half that much if you qualify as a micro entity) and a minimum of $800 for a non-provisional patent application (again, half that much for micro entities). If you are successful in convincing the patent examiner you deserver a patent the issue fee due to the United States Patent and Trademark Office will be $480, or $240 if you are a micro entity. Without even considering the cost of patent drawings, which should be considered absolutely essential, or any other fees that may come due during the process, it is impossible to obtain a patent for such a little investment even if you represent yourself.
Whether you are an independent inventor, an fledgling entrepreneur or a seasoned inventor who is going out on your own for the first time, the best thing you can do for yourself is to become familiar with the concepts and procedure associated with protecting your inventions. Obtaining patents is not easy for the uninitiated, and without some familiarity you will be wandering aimlessly and wholly incapable of making sound business decisions. Simply stated: Inventors who are completely unfamiliar with the patent process also won’t be able to help in any meaningful way with the patent process, and they will make poor strategic decisions that can lead to the loss of all rights.
So let’s start with the basics. A patent is a proprietary right granted by the United States federal government to an inventor who files a patent application with the United States Patent Office. Therefore, unlike copyright and trademark protection, patent protection will only exist upon the issuance of a patent, which requires you to file a patent application. Simply stated, if you do not obtain a patent you have no exclusive rights. This is why inventors should never disclose their invention outside of a confidential relationship. Such a relationship is legally created immediately upon seeking professional advice from a patent attorney or patent agent, but in all other situations if you do not have a patent you should be extremely cautious about disclosing invention information without a confidentiality agreement. What others learn from you outside of a confidential relationship can be used with or without your permission, and without giving you any compensation.
Furthermore, despite what you may have been told or read, keeping a detailed invention notebook, even if you mail a description of the invention to yourself, provides no exclusive rights whatsoever. It is extremely important to keep detailed invention records in case you ever need to prove the particular date you invented, which even in some extremely limited ways may still be relevant even under a first to file regime ushered in by the America Invents Act (AIA), but keeping such records will never provide you any exclusive rights. You absolutely must file a patent application and have that application mature into an issued patent in order to obtain exclusive rights to your invention.
Should I file a patent application and obtain a patent before I submit my invention or before I seek outside assistance from a development company? This question is one that I receive with great frequency. Unfortunately, as with most questions in the patent/innovation space, the answer is not as simple or direct as you might expect.
This is an age old question that is really the patent/invention equivalent of which came first, the chicken or the egg. Moving forward with a patent doesn’t make a lot of sense if the invention is not likely to be marketable. I always tell folks that the best invention to patent is one you will make money with regardless of having a patent, so I do believe there needs to be market considerations factored into the analysis. After all, the goal is to make money. Investing in a business, or investing to obtain a patent only makes sense if there is a reason to believe more money will be made than spent. Having said that, without a patent pending you have absolutely no protection, at least unless you obtain a signed confidentiality agreement and even then the protection will be applicable only to those who have signed the agreement.
The patent process actually starts well before you file a patent application or seek assistance from a patent attorney. Every patent application starts with an invention, and every invention starts with an idea. While ideas are not patentable, there will be a point in time when the idea you are working on comes into vision with enough detail to cross what I call the idea / invention boundary. To have a protectable invention you have to be able to describe it with enough detail so that someone of skill in the relevant technical field can understand how to both make and use the invention. Once you can do that, or once the patent attorney or patent agent you hire can, you are ready to file a patent application. If you are struggling at the idea phase please see Turning Your Idea into an Invention and Moving from Idea to Patent.
The first step in the patent process should really be a patent search. Doing a patent search is the only way to get a realistic idea about whether the invention is likely able to be protected. There is nothing wrong with inventors doing their own preliminary search, and in fact that is very useful task. SeePatent Searching 101. At some point as your project proceeds you should have a professional patent search done. Only with a professional patent search will you really discover everything that can be found. Just like a novice in your field would make mistakes, as a novice patent searcher won’t find everything that can be found, including many things that really need to be considered during the drafting stage of a patent application. After all, the whole point of a patent application is to articulate how the invention is unique. How can you do that without a comprehensive knowledge of what exists in the prior art?
In many cases, if not most cases, a patent search will suggest that at patent could be obtained. The critical question, however, is not whether a patent can be obtained, but rather whether a useful patent can be obtained. If you layer on enough specifics to any invention you will cross the point where the patent examiner will say your invention is new and non-obvious. But a patent that has such narrow claims is hardly useful for anything other than framing and hanging on the wall.
Unfortunately, despite what you may have heard from late night television, satellite radio commercials or snake oil salesmen, there is no effective way to protect an idea. Copyrights protect expression and patents protects inventions, and neither protect ideas. In both cases the idea is the first critical step, but without some identifiable embodiment of the idea there can be no intellectual property protection obtained and no exclusive rights will flow unto you. This does not mean that you should give up when you only have an idea, but it does mean that you will need to proceed to flesh out your idea to the point where it is concrete enough to be more than what the law would call a “mere idea.” The moral of the story is that ideas alone cannot be protected, so you need to think in terms of invention. Inventions can be patented. You just have to get from idea to invention.
On your journey from idea to invention to patent and ultimately, hopefully riches, please stop thinking that you will get rich by selling your idea to industry and sit back and collect royalty checks for doing nothing. If inventing were that easy everyone would be a filthy rich inventor! Ideas are a dime a dozen. What is valuable is not the idea that it would be wonderful to have this or that functionality, but rather the valuable piece to the puzzle is how to specifically provide that functionality you identify.
If you get stuck in the idea phase don’t just throw in the towel. Many good many inventors will become stuck in the idea phase from time to time, so if that is where you are you are not alone. It may surprise you to learn that you just think you are stuck in the idea phase and you might actually have an invention without even knowing it yet. United States patent laws do not require you to have a prototype in order to apply for a patent, all that is required is that you be able to describe the invention so that others could both make and use it. So while you do need to have some kind of identifiable embodiment you can start by proving your concept on paper.
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.
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.
Generally speaking, a patent application will publish 18 months after the earliest priority date claimed. What gets published does become prior art, but the rights may never mature into an issued patent. Sometimes it can be quite interesting to look at published patent applications to get an idea about what a company or University may be working toward achieving, as Steve Brachmann does for us every week as part of our Companies We Follow series. But there are no doubt some bizarre patent applications that have published over the years, such as a method of walking through walls like a ghost. See Knowing When You Have Too Much Time on Your Hands. So you never know quite what you will get with a patent application, although the jokesters are typically kept at a minimum given the expense of filing a patent application.
Nevertheless, recently as I was talking with Paul Dougherty of The Patent Box, he indicated that he could run a search that identified the shortest patent claims. It seemed like it could be fun, and perhaps might become a new series here on IPWatchdog.com.
In terms of observations about these claims, although short some of them may be more detailed than you might think, particularly the synthetic gene that makes reference to a particular gene sequence, for example. Of course, biology and chemistry are beyond the scope of my expertise, so these claims are provided here for your consideration. Hopefully some of our regular community members, who I know do specialize in bio/chemical matters will weigh in with comments.
While the gene sequence claim is no doubt more narrow than you might think, others are almost laughably broad to the point where they have absolutely no chance of being issued. For example, there are a couple so-called omnibus claim on this list, although many were located. An omnibus claim is not allowed in the United States and basically says “I claim what is described in the specification.” That type of claiming is simply not allowed and will be summarily rejected without any meaningful, substantive examination. There are also other very short mechanical claims listed, which seem to have no chance of succeeding on a first review by the patent examiner.
There is a great misunderstanding among many inventors and entrepreneurs regarding what many simply refer to as a “provisional patent.” The first thing that needs to be said is that there is no such thing as a “provisional patent.” Instead, what you file is called a provisional patent application. Like any other patent application, a provisional patent application is effective to stop the clock relative to so-called statutory bars and immediately upon filing a provisional patent application you can say you have a “patent pending.”
Perhaps most importantly, now that the United States has become a first to file country and abandoned our historic first to invent ways (see A Brave New World — First to File Becomes Law) it is critically important to file a patent application as soon as practically possible. Filing a provisional patent application that adequately describes the invention will establish priority and satisfies the need to act swiftly under first to file rules. A well prepared provisional patent application is your best friend in a first to file world.
Of course, a provisional patent application must be understood as nothing more than the first step toward receiving a patent. Ultimately you will need to file a nonprovisional patent application in order to obtain a patent in the United States. Still, there are substantial benefits to beginning with a provisional patent application. As with most things in life, however, there are pitfalls that can and do trap the unwary and unknowledgeable.