Inventors Lab . . . A Word About Patents
Love For Patents:
Patents can be a great source of Intellectual Property protection. They are easily recognized as a government backed document for defending and enforcing Intellectual Property (IP) rights. Moreover, there is a defined judicial process for acting on patents that is well understood and accepted in our society.
Patents also serve as a tool for articulating the boundaries of the property, sort of like a survey does for real estate, which makes a nice tool for transferring ownership or for selling IP.
— AND, they’re really cool! So who wouldn’t want their name on one?
Considering the “Other” Side:
Well, not everything is rosy with patents. So, at the risk of being a downer, here are some other things to consider.
Starting with the obvious . . . Patents are Expensive. They can be expensive to acquire (fees, and usually a lot of Attorney time). Then after a patent is issued, there are maintenance fees at certain intervals to keep the thing current (valid) with the patent office.
Next, patents can take a long time — sometimes years in prosecution to secure. When they finally issue, they are valid only for a limited time.
For an inventor or new business, prosecuting a patent can consume a lot of resources — not only money, but lots of time writing and reviewing and documenting.
And the kicker, after all the payments, having a patent does not mean the government will protect your invention. Rather, a patent gives you the right to defend the IP. And, A patent is only as good as your pockets are deep. Though this may be somewhat sarcastic, it’s true. Owning a patent does not keep someone from infringing — it’s just a tool to enforce your rights to the intellectual property. If someone infringes, you pay (both time and money) to go after them — and that can get REALLY expensive.
If this sounds negative, I’m sorry. It’s a dose of reality. Don’t let the above comments scare you away . . . rather, be aware of the limitations, so you can make informed decisions.
There are several things you can do to help yourself move through into the Patent Zone. These will help in conserving the required cost as well as the potential time drain. Here are a few:
- Do a patent search early to be sure you are not stepping on someone else’s work. It’s amazing how many patents are acquired that don’t ever go to production. Just because you have not seen one of these widgets before does not mean someone has not already documented it as their invention. It pays to thoroughly search and find out.
- Find a “Good” patent attorney to discuss these matters with. It’s always dangerous going into an attorney’s office because they benefit when you’re there — often. A shyster attorney will play on fears that everyone is out to get your idea, and that’s just not true. You need a “Good” one that has your best interest front and center — one that will help you walk away if it’s really better for YOU.
- VERY judiciously consider when or if to file a patent application. Often you can delay application to postpone cost, or use separate tools, like Provisional Patents to minimize initial cost. Sometimes it is best to stay away.
- If the decision is to go, consider the timing. It can often be best to delay applying for a patent until your product is nearly ready for market. This delay does some very important things:
- Preserves the length of time for patent coverage while the product is actually in the market.
- Conserves much needed cash for development of the product rather than legal fees.
- Avoids telling the world what you are doing until you have done it. An often misunderstood piece of info about patents: When you file a patent application, you are effectively telling the world your idea, because the application will be published publicly whether the patent is granted or not.
- Applying for a patent too early can constrain your development. I’ve seen many projects where the inventor filed a patent application very early, then by the time the product was developed several things had changed — enough that they had to file a CIP case to cover the new improvements. That is good in some ways (by giving overall broader coverage), but can be very expensive.
(Note: I used to make the recommendation for delay quite frequently, but changes in the law about application timing now make these decisions much more important. See the “Note About Timing” below.)
- Consider other options to buy you time — like provisional patents. Provisionals are not the answer to everything, because they have their own hiccups and a very dangerous 1 year fuse, but in some cases, they can buy the time needed for development. Please consider these hiccups very carefully before diving into Provisional Patents. You can lose all rights to your invention if you violate the time conditions.
- Check things out carefully, then make decisions based on sound reasoning – not fear – and don’t let your spouse or some over-anxious attorney talk you into doing an application too early, or for the wrong reasons. Use trusted friends and industry professionals to help make these decisions.
Note About Timing:
New laws for patents are in effect as of March 1, 2013. In essence, the new laws make a change from “First to Invent” to “First to Submit“. This means the first person to submit a patent application for a particular invention takes priority over someone else who may have actually been the first to come up with the idea. For inventors, this puts some emphasis on protecting your intellectual property properly prior to submitting a patent application. Other implications of these law changes go pretty deep, so please check with your Patent Attorney to see how the new laws affect you.
US Patent Office
Note: These are some good sources, though we don't endorse any specific one.