The Product Development Process - Protecting Your Big Idea

The Product Development Process

This article is an overview for how new products come to market.  This page is about Patents in The Product Development Process.

Patents:  Protecting Your Big Idea

Your Big Idea

This article is originally from - reprinted here with permission.

Unable to sleep, you're flipping channels on the television.  A product on an infomercial catches your eye.  "Oh my gosh," you exclaim, "I thought of that chopper-peeler-grater-mousetrap five years ago!  I could have been a millionaire!"

Having a great idea is just the first step in the invention process.  How do you protect your next one-in-a-million invention?  Is your invention really unique?  How do you get a patent?  Do you need a patent?  What are the differences between patents, trademarks, and copyrights?

Patents, Trademarks, and Copyrights

Let's start with some basic definitions:

  • Patent:  Grants the inventor "the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention in the United States or importing the invention into the United States."  Important note:  A patent does not guarantee the holder the right to make, use, or sell the invention.  If the invention violates state or federal law or infringes on the patent rights of others, a patent can still be obtained but the invention can't be made, used, or sold.
  • Trademark:  a name, symbol, or device used to distinguish certain goods from other similar goods.  Trademarks are designated by the © or ™ symbols.  Trademark rights can prevent others from using a confusingly similar mark for their goods, but they can't prevent others from marketing the same or similar good under another name.  A service mark pertains to services rather than goods.
  • Copyright:  A copyright, designated by the © symbol, protects the authors of original works, including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic (both published and unpublished).  A copyright protects the form of expression rather than the subject.  Writing your own article about protecting inventions and sending it to Home Business Weekly is acceptable.  Copying the article you're reading now and selling it to Home Business Weekly is not.

Patents, trademarks, and service marks are issued through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).  Copyrights are issued by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.

Three Types Of Patents

  • Utility patents cover the invention or discovery of a new, useful, and novel process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or an improvement to an existing invention.  Utility patents last for 20 years from the application date.  Examples of utility patents:  Crayons, Pez© candy, the Braille slot machine.
  • Design patents apply to a new and original ornamental design for an article of manufacture.  Design patents last for 14 years.  Examples of patented designs:  the original Coca-Cola© bottle, the Tiffany lamp, waffle-sole sneakers.
  • Plant patents are granted to a person who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.  Plant patents last for 14 years.  Example of a patented plant:  the "Organdy" chrysanthemum.

The Patent Process

First, make sure your million-dollar idea is a million-dollar invention.  Ideas cannot be patented.  However, you can file a Disclosure Document -- a witnessed and notarized description and sketch of your invention -- which the USPTO holds for two years.  It can be handy in establishing a timeline for the conception of your idea.  More information about the Disclosure Document can be found at

Make Sure Your Invention Is Unique

Before investing time and money in your prototype, you may want to search for similar patent claims.  Complicated patent searches can be done for you by patent attorneys or agents.  However, if your invention is simple, you may want to do an initial search yourself.

Search the U.S. Patent and Trademark (USPTO) office database at  This database houses information on existing patents and on patent applications filed since 1976.

Note:  Another good on-line source for patent searches is  This site has free PDF downloading (instead of having to page through TIFFs like at the US PTO).

The Patent and Trademark Depository Library (PTDL) houses copies of all patents and trademarks in addition to necessary forms.  Find a listing of PTDLs in your state at

Necessary Forms

All forms necessary for obtaining a patent or trademark can be found on the Web at  These forms are also available at the Patent and Trademark Depository Library.

How Much It Costs

Fees for patents and trademarks change yearly.  View the current fee schedule at:  Individuals, non-profits and businesses with fewer than 500 employees are entitled to the small-entity fee, which is half the fee charged to large corporations.

Who Can Apply For A Patent

Only the inventor can apply for a patent.  Two or more inventors can apply as joint inventors; however, people involved only in funding of the invention are not considered inventors.  A licensed patent attorney can be hired to make the application for the inventor(s), in their name(s).

Patent Pending

Patent pending status is granted for one year upon receipt of a Provisional Patent Application.  This provisional status gives you time to secure funding, line up vendors and complete the patent applications.  Never market anything as "patent pending" if this application has not been filed.  To do so is a criminal offense.

Patent Attorneys and Agents

The patent process is lengthy and confusing.  Eventually, most people who are serious about protecting an invention use a patent attorney or agent.  A list of approved patent attorneys and agents (was at one point) found on the website. (Maybe it's still there, but the actual link has changed.)

More Web Resources

The files of the U.S. Patent and Trademark office are filled with inventions that range from the serious (the first artificial heart) to the wacky (a motorized ice-cream-cone turner).  But, many revolutionary inventions started out as small ideas on how to make daily life a little easier.  Imagine the office without Betty Nesmith Graham's Wite-Out© or Arthur Fry's Post-It© Notes.  The next time you come up with an idea that makes your life a little easier, consider taking the time to protect it, then sharing it with the world.  Who knows?  It may be the next million-dollar idea.

Thank you to Hewlett Packard for allowing us to reprint their article.  The content was originally on

Links to More Reading

Engineering DevelopmentReturn:  The Product Development Article Start Page
Inventors Lab PatentsGo To:  The Inventors Lab -- A Word About Patents
Technical ArticlesGo To:  The Articles Library

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