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An Entrepreneur's Guide to Inventing How to pick the right patent for your potential product.

By Nathan Resnick

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Sally Anscombe | Getty Images

When starting a business, almost every entrepreneur asks themselves whether their idea is patentable. Patents provide a way to secure your idea, but navigating through the patent process is a world of its own.

To start understanding the invention world, it's crucial to know there are two main kinds of patents: Utility and Design. Utility patents are foundational in nature, involving a system, method, process or underlying technology. They have a lifespan of up to twenty years. Design patents, on the other hand, focus on protecting ornamental features of a product. They typically have a lifespan of fifteen years.

Though patents could be crucial to your business, there are several Fortune 500 companies that have kept their core formula a trade secret. Instead of publishing their formulas, brands like Coca-Cola and Heinz opted to go straight to market and keep their formulas for developing soda and ketchup a secret. Their trade secrets are now worth billions.

Related: 5 Steps for Turning Your Invention Ideas Into a Product

Since most patents can be very expensive, most bootstrapped entrepreneurs will start with a provisional patent. A provisional patent can be filed for both types of patents and will secure your invention for a twelve-month period, after which you would need to file a formal non-provisional patent.

Regardless of which patent approach you take, the absolute first step in the patent process is a novelty search. A novelty search will help you understand what patents exist in your idea's realm and how your idea is unique compared to other patents that exist.

To get started with a novelty search, take one of the three approaches below:

1. Hire an attorney.

Patent attorneys will be happy to perform a novelty lookup, yet this will typically run you $1,500-$50,000. The cost all depends on the scope of the search. The cheaper it is the less time the attorney spent in discovery. It's typical that attorneys cover only 40% to 70% of what is really out there.

Related: How Can I Legally Improve a Product I Didn't Create?

Pro tip: One aspect of patents to touch upon before you begin your search is the whitespace between patents. This refers to the area that your idea could cover, between other patents that exist.

2. Utilize Google.

One of the most overlooked Google tools is its database of patents. It's free and is only limited by the time you have to search through it. Be aware, though, when conducting a novelty search for your own invention, that you'll often be blind of other uses or applications in a patent. Google also leaves out the understanding of whitespace between patents. On the plus side, Google allows for research in publications, products and patents, whereas the attorneys usually limit their search to patents only.

3. Try Loci.

A new technology that has inventors and the IP industry buzzing, Loci is a Washington D.C.-based startup that offers an easy-to-use novelty lookup tool. The technology pulls from patent databases, publications and product databases to offer a comprehensive search. Unlike other platforms, it offers suggested keywords in context and showcases categories that allow the users to recognize disparate applications. This tool also helps inventors recognize whitespace immediately. If the inventor does determine their invention exists, it's easy to see where it doesn't or recognize a reasonable pivot.

Related: How to Protect Your Business Idea Without a Patent

Whatever path you take, understand there are people out there to help. Though you may be scared of someone stealing your idea, there are far fewer people out there like that than you'd imagine. Plus, it's not hard to protect yourself from theft. As John Wise, CEO of Loci, advises his clients, "Before you do anything else, write your idea down and send it via certified mail to yourself. Even better, sell one of your prototypes to a friend for as little as $1. Make sure you document the process. It's substantially more difficult to steal an idea after this. Most people will be turned off from trying to steal your idea if you tell them that it's published or documented."

With the patent process seemingly always leading to confusion for entrepreneurs, it's crucial to start by conducting a novelty search to see if your idea is even patentable. Now that you know the best ways to conduct a search, it's time for you to start!

Nathan Resnick

CEO of Sourcify

Nathan Resnick is a serial entrepreneur who currently serves as CEO of Sourcify, a platform that makes manufacturing easy. He has also brought dozens of products to life over the course of his career.

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