When you are moving from idea to invention to patent, regardless of how or why you find yourself stuck in the idea phase, the first order of business to get the ball rolling. You need momentum.
By now everyone has undoubtedly seen the late-night television commercials, and the online ads offering to help you patent an invention idea. Despite what these advertisements suggest, you cannot patent 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.
The first lesson today is this: Sometimes achieving an invention is not as difficult to achieve as you may believe. Indeed, frequently it is the person who has created something quite interesting and innovative that believes their work is not inventive when it truly is unique. So, for some humility is not a problem, and will become upset to learn or hear that what they are working on or have come up with is not particularly new or nonobvious. But there are also those who create special things, whether they be inventions or works of art, who don’t believe anything they created themselves could be special.
When you are moving from idea to invention to patent, regardless of how or why you find yourself stuck in the idea phase, the first order of business to get the ball rolling. You need momentum. Think about it. What task in your personal life have you been most avoiding? The more you avoid that task the harder it becomes to confront the task until ultimately it becomes crippling. But then when you do finally dive in, how often was the task far less onerous than you thought it would be? And when you get a head of steam tasks have a way of getting accomplished and goals have a way of getting reached.
The worst thing you can ever do is sit there at your computer, or at your work bench, or at the table with a pencil and piece of paper and accomplish nothing. Accomplishing nothing will only beget further accomplishing of nothing. In other words – staring at a blank screen is only going to beget further staring at said blank screen. And that is not a creative place, or state of mind.
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 merely an 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.
Here is an 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. And don’t think that an invention is going to come to you all at once, striking you like a lightning bolt from the sky. Sure, that can and does happen from time to time. If you’ve ever heard J.K. Rowling talk about where the idea for the Harry Potter series came, she explains that it came to her one day while she was riding a train, and everything started rushing to her one by one she couldn’t get it down onto the paper fast enough. Creation is a funny thing, it can happen suddenly, and it can also happen accidentally, as in the case of the invention of penicillin and the microwave, for example. Creation can also come deliberately step by step. And creation can come sometimes when you don’t even know it is coming and when you feel frustrated and as if you are making no progress. That is why you absolutely, positively must document everything you do, both successes and failures. If something turns into a success, you’ll want to be able to retrace your steps. If something fails you won’t want to try that again, or you’ll want to go back and try and figure where along the line things went awry.
As you work on your idea, if you continually add more details you will at some point cross over the idea invention boundaryand be squarely on the invention side of the line, which is the goal. What you want to do is explain the idea, as well as any and all aspects and alternatives associated with your idea. This is when you will approach 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, assuming it is new and nonobvious.
To put it into a bit more legalese, in order to obtain protection for what you are calling an idea, it must mature into an invention first. This means that you need to be able to explain to others of relevant skill how to make and use the invention so that they could replicate the invention after simply reading your description of the invention in a patent application. A patent application does not need to provide blue-print level detail, but rather it must teach those who have skill in the area you are innovating what they need to know to be able to carry out the invention.
Unfortunately, if you are stuck at the idea stage of the invention process and you find yourself unable to even inch forward with any kind of structure or substance, you are not ready to file a patent application. That also means you do not want to run out and start telling people about your idea or submitting your idea to companies. Many companies do not accept the submission of ideas, because ideas are not legally protected and, as such, are free to be taken by others. Some companies that do accept idea submissions will tell you that they reserve the right to use whatever you submit without compensation, so be very careful if you are submitting ideas yourself and not engaging the assistance of a licensing expert. Read everything AND make sure you understand it before you submit anything.
But for those looking for action items, here are 7 concrete steps you can take to help you get from your idea, to an invention worth patenting.
1. Work with a reputable service provider
You also do not need to have a prototype, but you will need to be able to describe the invention with enough detail and precision, providing sketches showing your inventive contribution. See Working With Patent Drawings to Create a Complete Disclosure. In order to get this far it is common for inventors to seek some form of assistance from a product development company, such as Enhance Product Development, a sponsor here on IPWatchdog that offers a full range of development services for all types of inventions.
If you do not have the ability to illustrate your invention yourself you can obtain patent drawings from a patent illustrator, and they are usually quite cheap compared to the extraordinary value they add to a patent application. You might also want to work with a company that provides 3D renderings, or an engineering firm that can assist you as you attempt to breathe life into your idea to get it across that idea/invention boundary and squarely into being an invention. In fact, having quality patent drawings is the single best and most economical way to broaden and expand any patent application. Having 3D renderings is also the best and most economical way to have something that is eye catching to show to those who are interested in your project, whether it be those who might fund the project or those who might be interested in licensing or acquiring your rights.
2. Work with an inventor coach
Another thing you could consider is working with an Inventor Coach. Stephen Key, the founder of Invent Right, is a successful inventor himself and he has for years taught his methods, which he follows himself, to his students. I’ve known Stephen for years, and what sets him apart from others is he has been successful as an inventor. He is not an attorney or businessman telling you the way it is in theory, he has lived it, and helped many inventors with ideas to licensing deals of their own. And if you aren’t ready to dive into coaching just yet, Stephen has several books that are absolute must reads for any inventor or would-be inventor.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you aren’t willing to spend the $20 and read One Simple Idea written by Stephen Key, or get it from your local library, then you should be asking yourself whether you are committed enough to be an inventor. It also gives you a taste of what coaching from Steve would be like and whether it is for you. Stephen has several other good books, all reasonably priced. For inventors I’d also recommend Sell Your Ideas With or Without a Patent (spoiler, he always recommends at least a provisional patent application, which I happen to think is great advice).
3. Invention Help from Colleges and Universities
Next, you might be able to locate some college students or graduate students who would be interested in working with you on your project. In fact, you may be able to hire a faculty member, particularly a younger faculty member who finds themselves with a lot of energy and accumulated debt, but only the salary of a college professor (which is not as high as many think).
If you have a nearby university, consider posting a notice on the bulletin board of the engineering school (probably requires college permission) or contacting the school directly to see if they might be willing to circulate your request for you. Many schools are more than happy to help their students find real world experience, particularly if you are willing to pay something for the student to work on your project. Indeed, finding college students to work for little or nothing is not so difficult, and if you are willing to pay you might be surprised that you are able to draw from the top of the class. Remember, college students are poor, and graduate students have been in that state of poverty for some time. They need the experience, resume fluff and some money to hold them over between student loan distributions, and their skills are very up to date. Of course, have them sign at least a simple confidentiality agreement.
4. Family and friends
There may be relationship and psychological reasons not to do this, but I will leave those issues aside and focus on the substantive.
You can also reach out to friends and family. You might be surprised what they can tell you and what directions they can point you in. A trusted friend who is analytical, creative or mechanically inclined can be a great source. Of course, you should still get some kind of written confidentiality agreement. This is not because you are afraid your friend or family member will steal the idea, but because once you start telling people about your inventions your right to keep the invention as a trade secret is completely lost unless you have such a confidentiality agreement. Furthermore, you might lose the right to ultimately apply for a patent. Therefore, some kind of agreement, even a watered-down agreement that is non-threatening, is absolutely critical. For a non-threatening agreement try the simple confidentiality agreement. This agreement shouldn’t threaten anyone. It simply explains the importance under the patent and trade secret laws that your invention remains a secret. If they want to help but aren’t sure, show them this article and explain that once you tell someone anything about your invention idea without having a patent application and without a confidentiality agreement you have already compromised your rights to a patent in certain countries, and a clock starts on you in the U.S. You have a maximum of 12 months to file a patent application, and since the U.S. became a first to file country it isn’t an absolute 12-month grace period any more. So filing first or having confidentiality agreements in place are absolutely essential to preserve the right to a patent.
5. Inventor groups
Another idea is to join a local inventors group. These groups are all over the country and provide members a way to bounce ideas of each other. You can learn where to go to get reliable help in your area and the steps to follow in your invention pursuit. Some of these groups also have an online presence as well. They are truly a great resource for new and experienced inventors alike. Active groups will meet in the real world and will frequently have guest speakers to address common issues. I’ve spoken to a few groups across the country, both in person and via Skype. Many times, these speakers are either patent attorneys in the area or successful inventors.
6. Do a patent search
You can also learn a lot about how to do things by searching for and reading related patents. This is a great way to see what else is being done in the area of your invention. For information on how to conduct your own patent search online see Patent Searching 101.
7. Using the Invent + Patent System™ to put things together
Finally, I recommend you consider using the Invent + Patent System™ to help you flesh out your idea and put enough meat on the bones of the idea so that it will be transformed into a detailed description and invention. I created the Invent & Patent System™ to help me teach my law students how to write patent applications. It was so successful that I adapted it for use by independent inventors, and since 2004 it has been used successfully to help tens of thousands of inventors create and file their own provisional patent applications.
In the latest version the system, which had a major overall in 2017 and has been continually updated since, we have expanded to provide coaching, video tutorials, examples, and templates that help inventors flesh out their inventions as they answer a series of 11 questions. So before you think you do not have an invention and all you have is an idea you might want to consider giving the Invent & Patent System™ a try. If you seriously answer the 11 questions, use the suggested answer templates, read the guidance provided and watch the video tutorials at each step that explain how you should answer each question and describe your idea, you will be coached through providing enough information to transform your idea into an invention and you will have a disclosure appropriate for filing as a provisional patent application (I give you a patent sample template, the forms you need and detailed instructions).
The moral of the story is this: If you have an idea that you want to pursue there are ways to pursue it even if you find yourself stuck. Getting help responsibly from reputable providers is one, getting help from friends, family or even at a local college is another, reaching out to local inventors who have been where you are is another still. Reading patents and learning what others have done and tried is free, and smart. You can do this!
Finally, once you have something that starts to look like an invention you should consider filing a patent application as soon as possible. See First to File Means File First!
For more information on patent basics please see the articles below. Good luck, and happy inventing!
- Tips from a Former Examiner on How to Conduct Interviews at the USPTO
- Ten Mistakes to Avoid When Drafting Information Disclosure Statements
- Defanging Descriptive Material Rejections
- Can You Refile a Provisional Patent Application?
- Ten Common Patent Claim Drafting Mistakes to Avoid
- It’s All in the Hardware: Overcoming 101 Rejections in Computer Networking Technology Classes
- Disclosure Requirements in Software Patents: Avoiding Indefiniteness
- Patent Procurement and Strategy for Business Success Part III: Prosecution – Wielding an Invisible Hand
- Patent Procurement and Strategy for Business Success Part II: Claims – Targeting the Right Infringers
- Patent Procurement and Strategy for Business Success: Building and Strategically Using Patents that Target the Right Infringers and Thwart Competitive Countermeasures
- Fit to Drive: Three Inspiring Office Action Responses from the USPTO’s Art Unit 3668
- Design Patents 101: Understanding Utility Patents’ Lesser-Known Cousin
- Two Key Steps to Overcome Rejections Received on PCT Drawings
- Errors in Issued Patents as a Measure of Patent Quality
- Intellectual Property for Startups: Building a Toolkit to Protect Your Products and Design
- Why the Patent Classification System Needs an Update
- Understanding What a Design Patent is Not
- Design Patents: Under Utilized and Overlooked
- Deciding Where to Obtain International Patent Rights
- When to Use the Patent Cooperation Treaty—and Why It’s So Popular
- Why and When Design Patents are Useful
- PCT Basics: Obtaining Patent Rights Around the World
- ipAwarenessAssessment: Inventors and Business Owners Should Start Their IP Journey with this USPTO-NIST Tool
- Successful After Final Petitions Can Help Advance Prosecution (Part V)
- From Agent to Examiner and Back Again: Practical Lessons Learned from Inside the USPTO
- WIPO’s INSPIRE Offers a New Way to Select Databases for Patent Searches Involving Machine Translations
- Understand Your Utility Patent Application Drawings
- Why It’s Time to Board the PCT Train: The Benefits of Filing U.S. Patent Applications via the PCT First
- Implications of Filing Subsequent Patent Applications in the United States (Part III)
- Types of Subsequent Patent Applications in the United States (Part II)
- Getting a Patent: The Devastating Consequences of Not Naming All Inventors
- Getting A Patent: Who Should be Named as An Inventor?
- Make Your Disclosures Meaningful: A Plea for Clarity in Patent Drafting
- Applying for a Patent in Germany
- Autopilot or Advocate? Raising the Bar in Ex Parte Appeals at the USPTO
- Time to ‘Think PCT’: Rethink Your Global Patent Strategy to Preserve Your Seat at the Table
- Patent Office Insights from Two Former Examiners
- Conventional Patent Wisdom Revisited
- Develop Your Database of Templates for Responding to Office Actions
- Background Pitfalls When Drafting a Patent Application
- Eight Tips to Get Your Patent Approved at the EPO
- Four Things C-Suite Executives Need to Know About Patents
- Starting the Patent Process on a Limited Budget
- What to Know About Drafting Patent Claims
- Beyond the Slice and Dice: Turning Your Idea into an Invention
- Mitigating ‘Justified Paranoia’ via Provisional Patent Applications
- Justified Paranoia: Patenting and the Delicate Dance Between Confidentiality and Investment
- Anatomy of a Valuable Patent: Building on the Structural Uniqueness of an Invention
- How Can I Sell an Idea for Profit? Unlocking the Idea-Invention Dichotomy
- Keeping a Good Invention Notebook Still Makes Good Sense
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Editorial Note: This is one of our most popular articles. It was originally published in 2011, updated in 2014, and it has been substantially revised and updated in 2018.