When I came up with the idea for a new rotating label technology, I had a hunch it was powerful enough that someone might try to steal it. I was right. Not long after I sent samples to a major company, they came out with a similar product. I had luckily filed thirteen patents on the idea and my wall of protection paid off. We settled out of court two weeks before our trial was set to start.
If you have a big idea that you're willing to defend in court, be sure to build an impenetrable wall of protection around it. In my last column "How to Protect Your Business Idea Without a Patent," I offered some options for protecting ideas from being stolen without having to shell out a lot of money. But there's no doubt the best way to protect big ideas is patents.
That said, a single patent won't do the trick. With enough determination and skill, your competitors can design around your patent, which is why I encourage entrepreneurs to pursue multiple avenues of protection.
Here are five steps to help you build a wall of protection no competitor can break:
1. Find all the ideas similar to yours. Truly new ideas are rare. Brainstorm a list of keywords relating to your idea and search them on USPTO.gov to dig up as many patents similar to yours as you can find. Google Patent Search is another great tool. For example, some keywords I used for my label design were: "packaging labels", "labels" and "labels on containers." I found over 10 patents relating to rotating objects, including labels.
You might also consider hiring a professional patent searcher. What's most important is that you thoroughly read and understand the claims each patent makes. You need to know what's been done before to find your idea's point of difference.
2. Figure out how similar products are being sold. The next step is to figure out how an idea has been implemented on the market. Are there any products being sold right now that resemble yours? When I researched other rotating label technologies, I discovered lots of patents about rotating devices, but none on a methodology of manufacturing. I knew that was my opportunity. I would learn everything I could about how rotating labels are made and file patents. I toured labeling equipment manufacturing companies and scoured industry magazines and websites for innovative packaging to supplement my research.
3. Identify ways to differentiate your idea. This step is challenging. You've already come up with your idea, and you might think it's the best it can be. But you need to consider all of the ways it could be manipulated or altered. Could a different material be used to make it? Could it be a different size or shape? How else could be it made?
You can ask an industry expert for their opinion, just be sure anyone you talk to about your idea signs a non-disclosure agreement, and you have a provisional patent application already filed. There's no clearer confirmation that you have a good idea than people trying to steal it.
4. Research how customers feel about similar products. Can you incorporate any of their criticisms of existing similar products into improvements of your own design? Maybe they would prefer if it were lighter, faster or stronger. How can your idea be better and more efficient? Capitalize on what's lacking from other products.
5. File a provisional patent application on what you find. Include all of the different ways to manufacture your idea and the different ways people might use it. Prevent people from working around your idea by having thought of all the ways to do so first. Cut them off at the pass. Filing a lot of intellectual property also functions as a warning sign. You're serious about protection, and you've made sure to be thorough.
I continued to file PPAs on different label manufacturing techniques as I identified additional opportunities for people to work around my idea. I kept costs low -- about $130 an application -- by filing PPAs from my office and doing the required drawings and specifications myself, rather than hiring someone to do them for me. I’d estimate that working with an attorney cost me between $1,500 and $3,000 per PPA. You should work with a patent agent or patent attorney until you feel sure you can draft and file a PPA yourself. Note: I never file patents myself -- that's something you should leave to the experts.
Patents aren't the only form of protection, but if you're serious about using intellectual property to defend your idea, this is the way to do it.