So you have an invention you want to protect. Before you call an attorney, spend some time familiarizing yourself with the options available to you. There are many ways to protect an idea, including provisional patent applications, copyrights, trademarks and, yes, patents. By and large, these are affordable tools you can use to establish perceived ownership over an idea.
But, and this is a major but: These tools aren’t inherently useful. Their power is dependent on the information you supply your attorney with. To make the most of them, you’ll need to actively work with your attorney.
If you want to establish perceived ownership, you can’t simply hire an attorney and ask him to protect your invention. That’s too hands-off. It’s the wrong approach. Yes, your attorney is an expert -- but only in the law. He’s not an expert on your invention, nor are you paying him to be. He is not going to save you. You need to be your own savior.
What I’m saying is: You need to maintain control. Don’t step out of the driver’s seat. Because at the end of the day, you must supply your attorney with the information he needs to effectively do his job. After all, you’re the expert.
If the idea of becoming an expert daunts you, shake it off. It’s not as difficult as you might think. More importantly, it’s not really an option. If you’re determined to file a patent, it’s a must. Do you need to become an expert on intellectual property? No. But you do need to understand the ins and outs of your invention. You need to know what’s been done before in the category. You need to learn how your invention could be made. Identifying potential workarounds and variations of your concept is critical to writing strong intellectual property.
Here’s how to do it.
1. Do a Google Images search.
Does your idea have a point of difference? What’s unique about it? Compare your concept to existing products. What are other companies doing? Your patent attorney needs to understand why and how your idea is unique. Make sure you send a copy of your sell sheet to your attorney. He needs to understand the big benefit -- why a company would pay to license it from you, for example.
2. Teach yourself how to search for prior art.
To file effective intellectual property, you need to understand what’s been done before in terms of patents. Digging through prior parents takes time, there’s no doubt about that. You can hire an outside firm to do it for you. But my recommendation is to learn how to do it as well. There’s so much important insight to be gained. And if you’re really invested, no is going to do a more thorough job. Yes, there’s a learning curve. Take one of the free tutorials the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) offers. Put in the time. It will be worth it.
3. Build a prototype if you can.
You will learn more about what works and what doesn't if you try to build it yourself. If you do, I guarantee you will discover variations and workarounds. You’ll use this insight to stop others from doing exactly that -- from working around your idea. As you can see, I’m all about empowerment. If you build a prototype, make sure your attorney sees it. Some people need to hold an idea in their hands in order to really get. For others, a video will suffice.
4. Learn how your invention would be manufactured.
Consider visiting a manufacturing plant to gain an understanding of its processes. I’ve done this. You shouldn’t ask them to solve any of your problems, though. If you do, you run the risk of them becoming a co-inventor. If you need technical expertise, find an engineer who understands manufacturing processes to help you. Make sure he signs a work-for-hire agreement. You can also watch videos about manufacturing on YouTube. Products that are too expensive to produce never see the light of day. Don’t waste a patent on an idea that cannot be manufactured.
5. Test the marketability of your invention.
Are your benefits strong enough? My advice is to figure that out before investing in a patent. You could reach out to potential licensees or retailers. What do they think? You might discover an opportunity you overlooked, which you can then incorporate into applications going forward. Of course, make sure your idea is protected by, say, a provisional patent application and a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before you disclose confidential information.
If you become an expert and share your expertise with your attorney, the intellectual property you file together will be so much stronger for it. He will be able to draft the most comprehensive application possible. He’ll know what language to use to make your claims as broad as possible, to prevent workarounds, and that also addresses manufacturing processes.
Does this sound like a lot of work? Yes, as it should be. This is a big undertaking -- not to be taken lightly!