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At Your Fingertips

Inventor assistance is only a Web site away.
March 1, 1998
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/15302

Never before has there been so much free information available to inventors chasing the American dream. The Internet now makes it possible for you to collect all kinds of information anonymously and without having to disclose your idea in the process.

First, let's dispel the notion that you must own a computer to access the Internet. This is not true. Most public libraries now provide access to the Internet for free or a small fee. And most colleges and universities have Internet access. If you are a student or an alumnus, chances are your school will allow you to log on to the Internet. You may also have noticed that a new cottage industry has entered the marketplace: Internet cafes. At these high-tech coffeehouses, you can buy a cup of coffee and instead of listening to music, you can surf the Net. These cafes generally charge around $6 per hour for Internet sessions. All Kinko's stores nationwide now have Internet terminals for the public to use for $10 per hour. And, finally, at many airports, you'll see Internet kiosks located near gates to give jetsetters a quick Internet session.

Look Before You Leap

Once you're online, keep in mind there is no cyber-patrol policing the accuracy of the information you discover. Anyone can put up any information they want on the Web, so sources have become a big issue. Most Web sites have a page titled "about us" or "who we are." I always go there first to find out who is behind the information I'm reading. Another tidbit: Any domain that ends with ".gov" is a government Web site and a reliable information source.

Once on the Internet, it's time to find those helpful nuggets of information. If you're at the point where you need to have a preliminary patent search performed to see if your idea is unique and patentable, access the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) Web site at http://www.uspto.gov. This site contains all the information you'll probably ever need to know about patents. Not only does it allow you to search its entire collection of issued patents, but it also has the forms you need to file for a patent. It also reports recent PTO news. This site is government-sponsored, however, so you won't find any fun or unusual information.

I prefer to use http://www.ibm.com/patentfor preliminary patent searches. This site was originally developed by IBM to help its researchers and developers perform quick and simple patent searches. Given the fact that for the last four years IBM has been the world leader in issued patents, and in 1996 alone received 1,867 issued patents, according to nonprofit trade association Intellectual Property Owners in Washington, DC, you can appreciate why the company developed this Web site.

In a very generous gesture, IBM made this site available to the public last year. It's easy to use and understand and provides bibliographic data, text and drawings of all patents issued since 1974. (The PTO site does not provide drawings.) This server also supports simple searching by keyword, phrase or patent number. It also has the capability for more advanced searching using Boolean methodology. (Simply stated, this means you can search in two fields rather than just one.)

Both the PTO and IBM sites have an online order form where copies of U.S. patents can be easily ordered for a fee with delivery by mail, fax or on CD-ROM. And both sites keep a current schedule of patent filing fees.

The National Inventor's Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, manages the site http://www.invent.org. Known as the "Inventure Place," this site provides information on all past Hall of Fame winners. If you're interested in entering an inventor competition, this site can give you information about several contests, including the B.F. Goodrich Collegiate Inventors Program. The site's list of related Web sites is also very good.

We all know patent attorneys are expensive. So if you can get free advice from one, it's a valuable resource. One Web site does give a patent attorney's perspective on patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. The site, http://www.sccsi.com/DaVinci/davinci.html, is maintained by patent attorney John Moettli, who is also an inventor. His site has information areas that explain the many steps involved in getting an idea to market. It also includes some sample legal documents such as a nondisclosure agreement you can use when speaking with potential manufacturers, and an invention disclosure document that streamlines the communication between you and your patent attorney or agent, thus keeping your legal costs low.

Showing Off

If you're interested in showing your invention or product to the world, you may want to look at the http://www.inventing.comWeb site, maintained by Boston-based Web design company Impulse Communications. For $20 a month, this site will display your idea. With some luck, potential buyers will see it while browsing the Internet. I have my doubts about the success of such an "Internet Invention Store," but then again, you only need one buyer. A valuable page on this Web site is its comprehensive list of books related to inventing. The site also lists companies that are willing to help inventors. A word of caution: These companies have not been pre-screened or interviewed. In fact, there was one company referenced that I would never do business with. As I mentioned earlier, you need to conduct reference checks before taking advice from any of these sites.

Another Web site trying to become the quintessential networking mechanism for inventors is http://www.inventnet.com. This site aims to provide independent inventors with up-to-the-minute information as well as assistance in developing and marketing their inventions. To that end, it has a monthly electronic newsletter where articles of interest to inventors are published. This site also has a fairly active "Chat Cafe." I know of one inventor who went into this chat room looking to solve a molding problem. He claims the replies he received were very helpful. General patent information is also provided at this site, as is a classified section where inventions for sale or license are displayed. A rather new addition is a sample nondisclosure/noncompete agreement that can be edited to your specific needs.

If you're looking for someone who can help you manufacture your idea, you no longer need to hoof it to the public library and search through the multivolume Thomas Register. This excellent resource is now online at http://www.thomasregister.com. The site requires that you register before using it. However, once registered, you can search through a database of more than 155,000 U.S. and Canadian manufacturers to find the industrial products or services company you might want to contact. Many of the sites have an icon you can click on to go directly to the manufacturer's home page. This is a must-see site for inventors looking for outside resources.

If your invention has been manufactured and you are now in the marketing phase, a Web site you'll definitely find helpful is http://www.tscentral.com. Trade Show Central offers details on more than 30,000 trade shows nationwide. Once you search and find the trade show that interests you, Trade Show Central will mail you information on the trade show and in many cases provide online registration. This is a helpful site given that most trade shows do little advertising and many times are not known about outside their specific industries.

If you'd like to look at more inventor Web sites, try searching on one of the many Internet search engines. The largest, Yahoo! (http://www.yahoo.com), is set up like the Yellow Pages. You search on a subject such as "florists." The search engine Alta Vista (http://www.altavista.com) allows you to search using keywords. As an example, you could search using a person's name. It also offers a feature for more advanced queries. For example, you can search using a phrase. Another search engine, Excite (http://www.excite.com), is very good at finding sites that are specific to a company or organization.

An important feature of the Internet is that most sites allow you to submit questions to the brains behind the site. This can be very helpful, and in the worst case, you send an unanswered e-mail.

If you choose to search for something, don't get frustrated. Many times you won't find what you're looking for the first time you try. However, you will invariably stumble on something that you hadn't planned on looking for that will be helpful.

If you haven't already, get on the Internet and start exploring. At the very least, you'll walk away with a better understanding of all the information that is truly at your fingertips.

Getting There

It's a long road from bright idea to thriving business. To help you get there, Tomima Edmark's The American Dream Fact Pack arms you with information and advice on prototyping to patenting and financing. To order this eight-book set ($49.95 plus shipping and handling), call (800) 55-TOPSY.

Tomima Edmark, the woman famous for her Topsy Tail invention has now turned her creative talents to the competitive retail arena of intimate apparel, HerRoom and HisRoom.