The light bulb above your head is glowing so bright that it's threatening to blind everyone around you. But what should you do with your great invention idea? Before you start blabbing about your invention to the wrong person or run to the first company that offers to buy it, you need to do one thing: Protect it.
Whether you want to produce and market your invention yourself or license it to another company, the only way to make money from your invention and to guarantee that no one will steal your idea is to file a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This can be an intimidating process, so we've asked Andy Gibbs, CEO of PatentCafe.com, to break it down for you in five easy steps.
Step 1: Document It
Simply having an "idea" is worthless--you need to have proof of when you came up with the idea for your invention. Write down everything you can think of that relates to your invention, from what it is and how it works to how you'll make and market it. This is the first step to patenting your idea and keeping it from being stolen. You've probably heard about the "poor man's patent"--writing your idea down and mailing it to yourself in a sealed envelope so you have dated proof of your invention's conception. This is unreliable and unlikely to hold up in court. Write your idea down in a specially designed inventor's journal and have it signed by a witness. This journal will become your bible throughout the patent process.
Step 2: Research It
You will need to research your idea from a legal and business standpoint. Before you file a patent, you should:
- Complete an initial patent search. Just because you haven't seen your invention doesn't mean it doesn't already exist. Before you hire a patent attorney or agent, complete a rudimentary search for free at www.uspto.gov to make sure no one else has patented your idea. You should also complete a non-patent "prior art" search. If you find any sort of artwork or design related to your idea, you cannot patent it--regardless of whether a prior patent has been filed.
- Research your market. Sure, your brother thinks your idea for a new lawn sprinkler is a great idea, but that doesn't mean your neighbor would buy one. More than 95 percent of all patents never make money for the inventor. Before you invest too much time and money into patenting your invention, do some preliminary research of your target market. Is this something people will actually buy? Once you know there's a market, make sure your product can be manufactured and distributed at a low enough cost so that your retail price is reasonable. You can determine these costs by comparing those of similar products currently on the market. This will also help you size up your competition--which you will have, no matter how unique you think your invention is.
Step 3: Make a Prototype
A prototype is a model of your invention that puts into practice all of the things you have written in your inventor's journal. This will demonstrate the design of your invention when you present it to potential lenders and licensees. Do not file a patent before you have made a prototype. You will almost always discover a flaw in your original design or think of a new feature you would like to add. If you patent your idea before you work out these kinks, it will be too late to include them in the patent and you will risk losing the patent rights of the new design to someone else.
Here are some general rules of thumb when prototyping your invention:
1. Begin with a drawing. Before you begin the prototyping phase, sketch out all of your ideas into your inventor's journal.
2. Create a concept mockup out of any material that will allow you to create a 3-D model of your design.
3. Once you're satisfied with the mockup, create a full-working model of your idea. There are many books and kits that can help you create prototypes. If your invention is something that will cost a lot of money or is unreasonable to prototype (like an oil refinery process or a new pharmaceutical drug), consider using a computer-animated virtual prototype.
Step 4: File a Patent
Now that you have all of the kinks worked out of your design, it's finally time to file a patent. There are two main patents you will have to choose from: a utility patent (for new processes or machines) or a design patent (for manufacturing new, nonobvious ornamental designs). You can write the patent and fill out the application yourself, but do not file it yourself until you have had a skilled patent professional look it over first. If the invention is really valuable, someone will infringe on it. If you do not have a strong patent written by a patent attorney or agent, you will be pulling your hair out later when a competitor finds a loophole that allows them to copy your idea. It's best to get the legal help now to avoid any legal problems in the future.
When searching for a patent attorney or agent, remember one thing: If you see them advertised on TV, run away! Once you are far, far away, follow these steps to choosing the best patent professional:
1. Do your homework. Have your inventor's journal, prototype and notes with you. This will save them time, and you money. This will also help persuade them to work with you.
2. Make sure they are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
3. Ask them what their technical background is. If your invention is electronic, find a patent professional who is also an electrical engineer.
4. Discuss fees. Keep your focus on smaller patent firms. They are less expensive and will work more closely with you. Agree to the estimated total cost before hiring your patent professional.
Step 5: Market Your Invention
Now it's time to figure out how you're going to bring your product to market. Create a business plan: How will you get money? Where will you manufacture the product? How will you sell it? Now is a good time to decide if you will manufacture and sell the product yourself, or license it for sale through another company. When you license your product you will probably only receive two percent to five percent in royalty fees. This often scares away inventors who feel they deserve more. But consider the upside: You will not have the financial burden associated with maintaining a business. This could end up making you more money in the long run.
Following these five steps will ensure an easy road to patenting your invention. Just remember that an easy road doesn't necessarily mean a short one. From the time you conceive your idea to the time you see your product on the shelf is a very long process. Most inventions take years to come to fruition. Have patience and follow due diligence in your steps to patenting your invention and your years of hard work will finally pay off.