If patent costs are still beyond your budget, you have other choices. The PTO offers inventors two other ways to file and document the date of invention. Although these filings don't replace patents, they offer some legal protection.
- Disclosure document: You may file a disclosure document with the PTO that describes through words or drawings any aspects of your invention you wish to disclose. Each one-sided page must be numbered, any text or drawing must be able to be photocopied, photographs are acceptable, and no prototype may accompany the document. One original and one copy of the document must be signed by the inventor and sent with a self-addressed, stamped envelope and a check for $10 to Box DD, Assistant Commissioner of Patents, Washington, DC 20231. No one reads this document; the patent office simply keeps the original, stamps the copy with an identifying number and date of receipt and then returns it to you. Unless the disclosure document is referred to in a separate letter when you make your patent application, the document will be filed in the patent office for only two years and then be destroyed.
Such a document does not initiate a patent application nor provide patent protection. It does, however, give you a legal document proving the approximate date of your invention. In the event someone then files a patent application for the same invention, you still must demonstrate an earlier invention date and prove you did not abandon the idea.
- Provisional patent application: Recent changes in nondesign patent laws (following the United States' 1994 passage of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade treaty) now allow for the filing of a provisional patent application. This includes a description of the invention; drawings may be required if the description is not clear. It doesn't, however, include an oath or declaration, patent claims, or the specified drafted drawings that are required with a full patent application. This application proves you've filed a patent application and allows you to claim an early priority date.
Filing a provisional patent application places your invention in "patent pending" status and gives you an additional year to follow up with a formal application. If you don't file a formal patent application, however, you won't receive protection. Unlike the disclosure document, your application will be reviewed for compliance by the application board. The fee for filing a provisional application is $75. This option is helpful if you're running out of time to file your patent and need to establish a filing date.
Filing a patent with the help of a qualified patent attorney is definitely the best choice if you truly want to protect your idea. Although it's expensive and time-consuming, filing a patent is the only legal means available to you to defend your invention. For more information on patent applications, the PTO has a very informative Web site (http://www.uspto.gov) designed to answer patent applicants' questions.