Are you at that stage where you are trying to figure out how to patent an idea?
Coming up with an ingenious idea for a product, process or machine is hard. Some people write their ideas in journals. Others tell them to their family or partners. There are people who only keep the concept in their minds. While a minority act upon their idea and create it, the majority of people simply daydream of selling their great idea to a profitable company or creating their own business selling the product of their brainchild.
They often feel robbed when they suddenly see their idea come to life in a commercial or see a similar product in the store. Since they never acted upon the idea, suing the seller is not an option. No court will accept a dream journal, a scribbled old napkin nor a verbal promise as proof of ownership.
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So how can you prevent others from recreating your ideas?
What are patents anyway?
Before tackling how to patent an idea, keep in mind that many confuse patents with copyrights and trademarks, but they all serve different functions. A patent issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) gives the inventor a property right within the U.S. and its territories and possessions for 20 years. According to USPTO, patents give patentees “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention in the United States.”
Almost anything can be patented. To be more specific, the USPTO limits it to “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” As an inventor, you can draft three types of patents—utility, design, or plant patents. Utility patents are meant for any new improvements. Design patents protect original ornamental designs for manufactured articles. Plant patents, as explained in the name, are granted to inventors who reproduce new plan varieties asexually.
Also when you are looking to raise capital from investors having a patent will give you an edge over others and will put you at a position of leverage. At this point make sure you have your story together as storytelling is everything when you are seeking capital. For a winning pitch deck to help you here, take a look at the template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) that I recently covered. Thiel was the first angel investor in Facebook with a $500K check that turned into more than $1 billion in cash.
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No matter the type of patent you may need, protecting your intellectual property can assure you a better chance of protecting your idea and any business you create around it. Whether you choose to sell the idea to bidders, licensees, or decide to develop it by yourself, a patent controls copycats. Or at least gives you legal rights to defend against them. So, how do you patent an idea? Patents can be issued to the USPTO through a patent attorney, but you can also do it yourself.
Either way, the following steps will help you prepare to patent your idea.
1) Explain your Product
Everything starts with a concept when figuring out how to patent an idea. Write down—or design if necessary—your idea and be thorough. Make sure to mark the date and sign each documentation. If possible, get a witness to sign the draft too. Just make sure to have a confidentiality agreement with them.
If you have an idea for a machine or manufactured product, try to create a prototype. Begin by sketching out your business idea. When you are satisfied with the drawing, make a 3D mockup of it. Finally, create a full-working model with the desired materials. Test it until you are happy with the results.
This is one of the most important if not the most important part of how to patent an idea. Has anyone come up with your idea before? Before patenting it is important to make sure your product is “a new and useful improvement,” as stated by the USPTO. A patent attorney can check other databases to make sure your idea is new. Their experience with drafting patent applications is useful but can be pricey.
If you are willing to do all the work yourself, do an exhaustive investigation. Start by using the USPTO search tools, which can help you find already patented products in their database. Once you are done there, find a search engine of your choice and look for “prior art.” “Prior art” searches help you discover non-patent products similar to your own.
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Hopefully, you will only find between five and ten documents for similar inventions. If so, compare your idea to each one and identify 10 to 20 things that differ in your design. Make sure to detail how those differences are advantageous and make your product superior to the rest.
3) Is It Worth the Effort?
Before taking the final steps and jumping headfirst into applications, assess your market. Is your project worth the patenting costs? If you are only hoping to reserve the idea for yourself and not looking to invest more in the idea once it gets patented, patenting might not be for you. USPTO patents can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars to file because of the basic fee and additional search, examination, and issue fees. Depending on the application an excess claim fee may be added. The price will increase even more if you hire a patent lawyer to help you through the process.
In the video below I cover in detail how to evaluate a business idea.
4) Get Ready to Apply
This is an obvious ingredient of how to patent an idea. Choose the type of patent you will be filing—utility, design, or plant—and read up on what is required to apply for each one. This USPTO article can help you understand how the application process would work depending on your chosen patent type. Then determine whether you would be better off with help from a patent lawyer or agent.
5) Finally, Apply!
Fill your determined application. Make sure to organize the documents as determined by the USPTO. Their page on information about the application for patent can guide you through the application process.
You can also submit your application online through EFS-Web, the USPTO’s electronic platform for patent filing. Their website includes resources to help you with the online filing and they have assistance for the first time online filers.
6) Wait for Acceptance and Approval
Once your application is received and accepted as complete your case will be assigned to an examiner. If you choose legal assistance, the examiner will only speak with your representative. The examiner will be responsible for reviewing your application to make sure it meets the requirements. If you have not met the requirements, the examiner will give you time to amend them. If you do not amend them in the given time the application is abandoned.
Once the application is approved you will receive a Notice of Allowance, which includes the issue and publication fees that you have to pay before the patent is issued.
Hopefully, this post provided some perspective on how to patent an idea.