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Are You Trying to Protect Your Idea -- or Sell It? Do you really need a patent? It all depends on who you ask.

By Stephen Key Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Because I've been on the road promoting my new book, Sell Your Ideas With or Without a Patent, a lot this year, I've had the privilege of meeting people who are launching new products and businesses in person. Everyone wants to know -- do they need a patent?

Related: Don't File for That Patent Yet

Most inventors are extremely fearful of their ideas getting stolen. The question really isn't that simple, though. Just the other day, I overheard a speaker at a trade show declare to inventors as if it were a given -- "And then you need to file a patent…." What? What you need to do is think critically, and develop a business strategy. What are you really after? How are you going to get there? When it comes to intellectual property, if I've learned one thing, it's that there are absolutely no black and whites.

For the record, I'm a patent holder. In fact, I have nearly 20. I continue to file -- my latest patent was issued last year. I successfully defended my intellectual property against the world's largest toy company in federal court. I've been collecting royalties on my patent-protected technology for more than two decades. I've lectured at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office about the power of patents. When I say this is what I've learned, I'm speaking from experience.

Do you need a patent? Maybe, maybe not. It all depends on who you're asking.

1. If you ask a patent attorney? Of course he'll say yes.

It's their job to protect you. And at that, they do a wonderful job. But you don't have to protect every idea you have. Before you consult an attorney, you need to become the expert. You need to assess the marketability of your idea and then determine whether or not to move forward. Because at the end of the day, your attorney will only ever be as good as the insight and information you supply him with. Learning how to use provisional patent applications to your advantage is crucial.

2. If you ask a first-time inventor who is afraid of people stealing his idea? Of course he'll say yes.

But the reality is, patents don't prevent me-too products from hitting the market. The most powerful companies in the world aren't able to ward off copycats. Patents are tools to be used strategically. After sparring in federal court, I know for sure: We don't ever own anything. It's all about perceived ownership.

I want inventors to stop filing intellectual property out of fear. With a little education, you'll be concerned, but not fearful. Choose to be empowered.

Related: How to Protect Your Business Idea Without a Patent

3. If you ask someone who is starting a business and plans to look for investors, of course he'll say yes.

Investors, unsurprisingly, want to know what they're getting. How much time and money have you invested? Patents play into that. Just one won't cut it, though. A wall of intellectual property, including copyrights and trademarks, is needed to truly assert one's ownership. So again, crafting a thoughtful strategy in advance is key.

4. If you ask someone who invents for high-tech industries like medical, automotive and packaging? Of course he'll say yes.

Industries like these require a lot of know-how. Innovation happens from within -- and slowly. (Just think of the equipment needed to implement even the slightest of changes.) Because of this, and the fact that so much capital is required, intellectual property is vital. The opportunities are huge -- but so is the risk.

5. If you watch Shark Tank? Of course you'll hear all the sharks say yes.

Remember, the sharks are buying businesses, not ideas. When you start a business, having some intellectual property is important. It makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy. But the truth of the matter is that defending your patents in federal court is extremely expensive. If your product is popular, copycats will arise.

Here's the reality. Most of us are inventing consumer products. And most consumer products are not patented. I know for sure, because I help my students finalize licensing agreements just about every week as a co-founder of inventRight.

Most of the time these, ideas are not patented -- they're merely protected with a provisional patent application. If the licensee wants to file intellectual property, that's an option. Because most products move in and out of the market so quickly, no intellectual property is required. Before a patent issues, the product's life might have ended. Some industries don't require intellectual property whatsoever.

After all these years, what do I think? The best way of protecting your creativity is by getting to market first and having great customer service.

Related: How to Know If You Need to Patent Your Product

Please, look at protection from a business perspective, not from a legal one. At the end of the day, are you trying to protect your idea -- or sell it?

Stephen Key

Co-Founder of inventRight; Author of One Simple Idea Series

Stephen Key is an inventor, IP strategist, author, speaker and co-founder of inventRight, LLC, a Glenbrook, Nevada-based company that helps inventors design, patent and license their ideas for new products.

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