Before You Crowdfund an Invention, Consider Patent Protection

Crowdfunding has become a successful way for an inventor to raise the money needed to create, manufacture and distribute a new product. You just need to look at the successful crowdfunding campaigns of the Pebble Watch or the Coolest Cooler to see what the power of the crowd can do for a new consumer product. The days of begging friends, family and angel investors to fund a new invention are over for someone with a great new idea and access to "the crowd."

But access to the Internet is a mixed blessing. Millions of people can now quickly see, evaluate and potentially donate to help an inventor get his or her product off the drawing board. But amongst those millions of people are a few bad apples who will see a great idea and try to steal it. Even the great Steve Jobs was once quoted as having said, “We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

Related: Protect Your Most Valuable Business Assets

As a crowdfunding attorney, I caution excited product creators about one important aspect of the online crowdfunding process: Legally protect your invention, if possible, through the patent process.

InventHelp is one of the industry leaders in helping inventors and entrepreneurs get a product to market. InventHelp’s CEO, Robert Susa, says that inventors should consult with a patent attorney early in the process.

“We use a patent referral system to give our inventors access to patent attorneys who can advise them of the best way to be protected, before they put their product online for the world to see,” he says.

A patent is the best legal means to protect an invention from being sold or used by another person or business, and provides a remedy if an idea is stolen. Patents are very expensive, however, and many product creators will take a far-less expensive step and first file a provisional patent application.

A provisional patent application is a document filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that establishes an early filing date and gives the inventor one year to file a regular patent application. The provisional application is a shorter, more simplified version of the patent application. Some people mistakenly say that filing this document gives them a “provisional patent” even though no such thing exists. The correct term after filing any patent application, provisional or not, is that the invention is “patent pending.”

Related: Lower Trademark Filing Fees Coming Soon

Does the “patent pending” label protect the inventor from online thieves and pirates? While filing a provisional application can act as a deterrant that dissuades your competition from stealing your product, it does not provide an enforceable patent that gives you the best protection under the law. However, as a practical matter, filing a provisional patent application can be a valuable advertising tool, and one that helps attract investor capital, whether through crowdfunding or more traditional investor funding.

Susa also notes another benefit to filing the provisional patent application. 

“If an inventor’s goal is to license their product, many large companies often want to see that an inventor has made that effort before they go into business with you,” he says.

The bottom line is simple: Protect your idea the best you can before you put it on display on a crowdfunding platform for the world to see. Talking to an attorney who specializes in patent and intellectual property law is an investment every inventor and product creator should make before diving into the crowdfunding arena.

Related: Don't Let the Fear of Your Idea Being Stolen Hold You Back