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A Quick Guide to Free Legal Services for Patenting Your Invention

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Filing for a patent is a landmark of  the 'valley of death' inventors have to cross from invention to market. Unfortunately, I have heard countless stories from entrepreneurs who paid astronomical fees towards the preparation of patents.

While I am not opposed to a fair price for the filing of a patent, I think it is tragic when great ideas run out of funds during the path towards commercialization. According to invention statistics the cost for an attorney to prepare a utility patent application ranges from $10,000 and $15,000 and $5,000 to $6,000 for preparing a provisional patent application.

Related: Top 10 Patent Myths

When I began working in this field, more than a decade ago, the patent office utilized the first-to-invent system that granted a patent to the person who invented the idea. Now, the patent office bases its current application on the first-to-file method, meaning the inventor who first files for a patent to protect the invention is the inventor.

As a result of the challenges facing independent inventors in affording a patent filing, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) launched a national pro bono legal program to support independent inventors with free intellectual property services through community partners and non-profit organizations located throughout the country. There is a five-step plan for accessing the USPTO pro bono patent assistance program.

1. Understand the various protections available to you. Starting out, it can be confusing to understand the various options available to protect your idea. There is the provisional patent, the non-provisional patent, the design patent, trademark, copyright and more.

Most inventors consider filing for a provisional patent. It is less expensive then first filing a utility patent but affords one year to market an invention as "patent pending" for obtaining a licensing deal or building initial profits. If the invention is promising, the inventor can choose to file a utility patent to protect the invention for up to 20 years.

Related: To Patent or Not to Patent?

2. Determine if you qualify financially for assistance. Acceptance into the pro bono program requires applicants to meet financial criteria. To qualify, your gross household income is limited to 300 percent of the poverty level. For example, a family of four cannot exceed $71,550 in total household income.

3. Take the Patent Training Certification Course for free. The USPTO has developed a free patent training certification course to support greater knowledge and awareness of the intellectual property process.

4. Develop a bona-fide invention, not just an idea. Having an invention, and not merely an idea, is critical to supporting a patent application process. You need to describe the invention, its functions and the proposed claims you are trying to protect.

5. Check if you qualify as a micro-entity or small business entity. The micro-entity fee discounts 70 percent of the fees associated with filing, examining and maintaining patent applications. A small business entity is entitled to a 50 percent reduction in patent service fees. The filing fee for a non-provisional utility patent is $70 for a qualified micro-entity and $140 for a small business entity.

Entrepreneurs no longer have to fear the patent 'valley of death' with the America Invents Act encouraging the USPTO to support inventors and small businesses with pro bono services.

Related: Why Filing a Patent Just Got More Complicated For Startups (Opinion)

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