You've got it; the latest, greatest new idea for a fantastic invention.
It'll revolutionize the industry, whatever that industry is. So what do
you do? How do you get started? When do you need help and from whom?
Getting an invention patented is a challenging and highly rewarding process. It's also a personal investment, particularly if you've invented something based on a personal need, or experience. Getting the correct professional assistance can help demystify the process and relieve you of some of the daunting details involved.
There are a few things you can do to help yourself, and there are professionals that can assist as well. This article outlines the basic steps in getting your latest and greatest idea patented.
Start off by keeping records of your invention, from the very first thought you have, through any prototypes you may build, to revisions and notes.
An invention log is crucial in the case two inventors apply for a patent for the same invention at the same time. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) awards patents based on the conception of that invention. If you have a detailed, notarized log, you can prove the date your invention was conceived. It may be the difference between securing a patent and being disappointed.
When you have what you think is a patentable invention, be careful who you discuss this with. As soon as your idea or invention is presented in a public forum, sold to the public, or otherwise disclosed, to anyone who has not signed a confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement, you've started a one year countdown to apply for a patent. After that year, you lose the ability to file. Resist the urge to talk with co-workers, friends, or family. You may be excited about your invention and want to share, but you may be putting yourself in jeopardy by doing so.
Searching for patents granted for inventions similar to yours is next. Searches are required before patent applications can be filed, and you can run some searches yourself, before hiring an attorney, to give you an idea if there is anything already patented that would prevent you from continuing to pursue your application. You can do a preliminary search yourself online at the USPTO, at freepatentsonline.com, or Google Patent Search.
Enter search terms that apply to your invention. You may end up with several hundred, or even thousands of patents and applications. Start documenting what you find, keeping a list of possible patents issued that are similar to yours.
Your aim here is not to do a complete patent search, which is conducted during the patent application process, but to determine if there is already something patented exactly like your invention. If there is, there is no reason to proceed with your invention. You'll save yourself time and expense early in the process.
However, if you find an issued patent the same as your invention, and you feel you have a way to improve that invention, you can file a patent on improvement. It needs to be a new, non-obvious improvement, not just the same idea rewritten. At this point a patent agent or attorney can offer the best advice.
Now it's time to turn to professionals. You may need to have a model maker or fabricator help you construct a model. Prototypes of inventions help you see your invention in "real life" and can show any possible design flaws. Early stage prototypes can be constructed by you of cardboard, foam, or paper, or you can create a computerized visualization of your invention.
If you need a professional to help with fabrication, it's imperative to have whomever makes your models sign a confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement (NDA). You're basically showing them your idea; it's essential to have an agreement with them that they can keep your invention information confidential, but allows you to discuss it with them. Confidentiality and NDAs are basically the same. You can find examples online, or at many office supply stores.
When you feel ready to apply for a patent and want professional help filing the application, you can hire either a patent agent or patent attorney. Both can, if licensed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), handle the legal aspects of filing your application. However, patent agents cannot represent you in court; if you encounter the need down the road for litigation involving patent infringement, you will need to hire an attorney who specializes in patent litigation.
When looking for either an attorney or agent, you'll need to find one that is licensed by the USPTO. They offer a searchable database on their website to help you find a licensed agent or attorney. You can also contact your state bar association for a list of attorneys who practice Intellectual Property law.
If you have an invention within a specific technical area or field, look for legal professional that also specializes in that field. You'll need someone who understands your invention. If your professional does not understand your invention properly, find someone who does.
Aside from understanding your invention, you'll probably be concerned about cost next. Patent attorneys usually charge more than patent agents, as they have graduated from law school and passed the bar exam.
When you've found an agent or attorney, they will work from your log, your description of your invention, and from any models you have to write a patent application. You will be asked to review this document several times before it is filed; it is imperative to work with your attorney to make this application as complete and accurate as it can be. It may go through several revisions before the final document is created.
Once your application is filed with the USPTO, the waiting
begins, as the examination process can take up to two years. The examiner
assigned to your application will review your application, and any
drawings submitted. During the examination process, the
examiner will send correspondence to your attorney. These are called
Office Actions and state any objections the Examiner may have,
and can range from seeking simple clarifications of claims or modifications to
drawings, to more complex issues.
Your patent attorney will send you copies of all correspondence they receive, and the replies they make to the USPTO, along with correspondence that clarifies the issue for you. If you don't understand something your attorney has sent you, don't hesitate to call and have them explain in greater detail.
When the patent prosecution is complete and your patent has been granted, your attorney will send you a "ribbon copy," a bound and decorative copy of your issued patent. This is your record that your patent was granted. Many patent holders keep these in a safe deposit box or other secure location. You can also ask for unbound, plain paper copies of your patent for use in other applications.