From the September 2002 issue of Startups

(YoungBiz.com) - So you have a one-in-a-million idea--the kind of idea that could transform the way people live. Or maybe it isn't quite that world-changing--but heck, it's still going to make life a lot easier; like, say, the Post-It note.

Now what?

That's the dilemma many inventors face. Before your product or idea hits the market--and you start raking in the big bucks--you've got some work to do. You must protect your idea so it will stay that way--yours.

First Things First There are basically three legal ways to protect what's known as intellectual property--patents, trademarks and copyrights.

Inventions, designs and discoveries that are new or are improvements to existing ones fall under the patent category, while words, product names, logos, symbols, musical notes, colors and other items that represent the registrant's products are protected under a trademark. (Trademarks are for goods; service marks are for services.) Both patents and trademarks are handled by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Original works of authorship in areas such as music, literature, drama, art and film are handled by the Register of Copyrights of the Library of Congress.

Kristin Hrabar of Aberdeen, New Jersey, now 16, was in the third grade when she invented the illuminated nut driver--a special nut driver with a clear shaft and a light mounted in the handle. A few weeks later, she entered her tool in an inventing contest at school. The judges said, "This is a great idea. You should get a patent!" An invention like Hrabar's falls under the patent heading.

Here's a look at the process of protecting your product or service:

Step 1: Make Sure Your Idea Is One-of-a-Kind.
Encouraged by the judges' words, Hrabar and her dad went to the patent depository library at Rutgers University (which houses copies of U.S. patents) to conduct a patent search. Hrabar and her father were pleasantly surprised: There wasn't another product on the market like hers.

Inventors can also conduct a patent search online. That's how Dana Philen, 14, of Atlanta, and her father determined that her idea for a multi-purpose choke and regular dog collar was original. After doing a search on a patent page, they were a little surprised to find out no one had thought of it before. "There was nothing out there like it," she said.

Step 2: Apply for a Legal Protection
After making it through the first step, Philen decided to apply for a patent. Before an inventor can proceed with this step, he or she must be sure the product passes the four tests outlined by the USPTO's Web site:

  • It must fall into one of the five "statutory classes" of things that are patentable (processes, machines, manufactures, compositions of matter and new uses of any of these.)
  • It must be "useful."
  • It must be "novel."
  • It must be "unobvious" to "a person having ordinary skill in the art to which said subject matter pertains."

Meanwhile, Hrabar was busy applying for a trademark. Because she had decided to call her product LightSaber Tools and wanted to make sure no one else could use that name, she needed a trademark.

The entire process of registering and protecting a name with a federal trademark takes a year or longer. During this time, anyone who had already registered the name LightSaber (or used that name in business) could challenge Kristin's right to the name.

Step 3: Cross Your Fingers
Eleven months after Hrabar filed for a trademark on LightSaber Tools, she was challenged by Lucas Licensing, the company that handles all Star Wars products. Because it would take a long, costly court battle to attempt to win the right to the name, Hrabar decided to give up the LightSaber name, but she immediately filed a new application for the name LaserDriver Tools. This time, there was no opposition.

The protection process was much easier for Philen. She was able to secure a patent for the Walk 'N Train dog collar without any opposition. She now holds utility and foreign patents on her invention in the United States and 140 foreign countries.

Step 4: Get Your Product to Market
About nine months ago, several private investors in Hrabar's family decided to help bring LaserDriver Tools to market. Kristen and her mom found a manufacturer in Taiwan to produce the LaserDrivers. Several stores in Aberdeen now carry LaserDriver Tools, and a Web site serves out-of-town customers.

Before she could market her product, Philen also had to find a way to keep production costs down. To make her prototype collar, she and her mom took a trip to the local pet store, where they bought a regular nylon collar and a choke chain plus some other parts. "We tried different ways to put it together and then got my Dad to get his soldering iron so we could fuse the nylon parts together," Dana explains. "The first collar looked OK, but it cost a lot to make."

After some phone calls, she found a manufacturer in Taiwan who could make the collars for less than she could. "I sent the drawings to Taiwan, and they sent back samples and prices. The prices were better than I could do buying parts at retail, and the quality of the samples was terrific," she says. Philen now sells her invention, the Walk 'N Train dog collar, via her Web site at http://walkntrain.com.

Persistence Pays Off
Hrabar and Philen were both lucky--the road to the marketplace was fairly pothole-free. Still, Philen offers would-be inventors these words of advice: Be prepared to work. "You have to really want to go forward with it," she said. "You don't want to just say it would be cool to get a patent and make some money off of it--you have to really want to do it."

Still, she says, there's nothing like seeing your idea snare a patent and become a budding company. For inventors with perseverance, there could be one very bright light at the end of the tunnel.

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