Your intellectual property and ideas are often more valuable than any physical asset.
Yet, how do you go about protecting your big idea? After all, you’ve probably heard that patents are costly, complex, and time-consuming, often burdening a young business before it gets off the ground.
However, navigating the patent world is doable, and it’s actually becoming more affordable thanks to legislation that came into effect this past spring. If you’re wondering if you need a patent, here’s what you need to know.
What You Need to Know About Patents
What is a patent?
A patent gives an inventor the exclusive rights to manufacture, use, or sell an invention for a certain number of years.
Patents cover tangible things, and can include software processes, product design, and other inventions. For example, Twitter has a patent on the “pull-to-refresh” function found in Twitter’s iPhone app; Coca-Cola patented the unique shape of its original bottle.
When you register your invention with the government, you get the legal right to exclude anyone else from manufacturing or marketing it.
How to file
Before you file for a patent, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Is your product idea original?
- Is it useful?
- Is it not obvious to others in your field?
If the answers aren’t yes to all three questions, your application probably won’t be accepted.
Acquiring a patent can take up to six years. However, the most important date is the date that you filed your application. Once you submit your paperwork, you secure your priority date. This means that if another company starts doing something similar after your filing date, they’re infringing on your patent and can be ordered to stop.
You can file an application yourself with the US Patent and Trademark Office or enlist the help of a patent attorney. Before you file, you need to do a comprehensive patent search to make sure your invention is new. The USPTO offers some resources to help you get started, and if you’re hiring an attorney, they’ll take care of this step for you.
How much does it cost?
Patent application filing fees are relatively affordable, particularly if you can qualify as a microentity (then your filing fee is just $400). If you have fewer than four patent applications on record and meet certain income criteria, you might be able to qualify as a microentity.
However, keep in mind that if you choose to hire an attorney, this could cost you between $7K-15K in attorney fees. That’s a huge sum, but by going with an expert, your patent application will be done right. And in the long run that can be more affordable than spending hundreds of hours of work on a DIY patent application that doesn’t get accepted.
- Apply for a provisional patent: This involves a simpler and lower-cost filing fee that lets you stake your claim for one year. But keep in mind, that you still need to file your full application within one year of your provisional patent.
- Be careful how you share your invention: While it’s always smart to use nondisclosure or confidentiality agreements before sharing your idea, there’s now serious legal incentive too. That’s because once you publicly disclose an invention (for example, to the press, a blogger, or investor), you need to file for a patent within one year or else you will lose your rights to it.
Nellie Akalp is a passionate entrepreneur, small business advocate and mother of four. As CEO of CorpNet.com, a legal document preparation filing service, Nellie helps entrepreneurs start a business, Incorporate, Form an LLC, set up Sole Proprietorships (DBAs) and maintain a business in compliance with state filing requirements for a new or existing business.