Q:I have an idea for a new product. Do I need a patent, and how do I get one?
A: Yes, you do need a patent if you want to protect yourself. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website is an extremely comprehensive site with forms, fee rates and instructions on how to apply for a patent online.
If it's just a basic filing fee to cover your idea, and you're considered a small business or you're an entrepreneur working alone, you'll pay $150; double that if you own a large company. But the deeper you delve, the more you might pay: You can pay patent search fees (if you're not sure if there's already an existing patent that covers your idea), patent maintenance fees (every several years, you'll need to renew it), and all sorts of obscure patent fees from design filing fees to patent application extension fees. Still, chances are you'll just pay $150 and only have to worry more about patents if your product turns out to be a success. In that case, you'll probably be hiring a patent attorney.
You may even have a business practice that could be covered by a patent, something in which you've invested time and money. For instance, Amazon.com's 1-Click system, which allows repeat customers to bypass address and credit card data forms, has been patented (although it's now being challenged in court). The benefits are immediately obvious: You can patent a business method for 20 years, keeping competitors from using it, or you can license it out.
Some books you'll probably want to check out include Patent It Yourself by David Pressman (Nolo, $49.99), and Patents, Copyrights & Trademarks for Dummies by Henri Charmasson (John Wiley & Sons, $21.99).
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.