How to Get Your Inventions Patented and Sold
The Crux of an Idea
There is an old saying that goes, “The world will beat a pathway to your door to buy a better mousetrap.” The opportunity to cash in on an invention is one of the top dreams an entrepreneur can have. All it takes is thinking up something useful that no one else has built. But having an idea is a far cry from earning big bucks from its sale. There are a number of steps one must follow to reach that goal.
What is a Patent?
A patent is defined as the exclusive right to control an invention. Once a patent has been issued, the owner can prevent anyone else from using it, manufacturing it, or copying it without permission. There are three basic patent types – utility patent, design patent, and plant patent – with each covering different methods and lasting for different lengths of time. A utility patent is usually good for 20 years and covers machinery and processes. A design patent is usually good for 14 years and covers a particular design that does not fall under the previous description. A plant patent is usually good for 17 years and refers specifically to an inventor who has developed a new type of vegetation. Generally speaking, once the period of a patent has expired, the item becomes public property.
The Creation Process
After you come up with an idea for an invention, the first step likely involves building a working model or testing your creation. Let’s say you have designed a new kind of electronic parking meter. You will purchase parts and supplies to build what is called a prototype – a working sample, if you will. You will have drawings of the inner workings as well as the outer case, most probably noting the type of material or specific items used for each component. Precise record keeping is vital, which also should include the exact dates and times you took each step toward the completion of your invention. Believe it or not, history is full of stories about people who invented the same products at very nearly the same time, sometimes perhaps a continent away! Under these circumstances, if you can prove that you came up with the idea first, your invention will have precedence over someone else’s design.
The Patent Application Process
In the United States, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is responsible for reviewing applications and determining whether or not something can be patented. There is no guarantee that your application will be approved, of course, but every submission is given close scrutiny. One obtains a blank application from the patent office and then fills it out, sending it in with the proper documentation and the necessary fees. There are a number of ways the novice can be tripped up, so a careful assessment of the ground rules can make a huge difference between success and failure. For example, one cannot file for a patent on any item that has been for sale on the open market for more than a year, or even been offered for sale. Plenty of inventors are anxious to get some payback on all their hard work, but it can be unwise to be selling your products without patent protection. In most cases, any plans to sell your invention outside the United States would involve the need to file for patents elsewhere as well. Doing so with the European Union and in Japan would cover most of your bases, as nearly every country recognizes patents issued by one of these three entities.
A patent examiner (or group of examiners) will pass judgment as to whether your invention will be granted a patent. There are many rules that come into play. One involves the fact that your invention cannot be “obvious.” This means that the average person would not know how to solve the problem your invention addresses by using the exact same methodology. Another element revolves around “prior art,” which is where a patent search is involved. The examiner reviews any previously issued patents that even remotely appear similar to your invention. In the aforementioned example, any patent previously issued for a parking meter of any kind will be dusted off and read thoroughly. In the mind of the examiner, if what you propose is sufficiently different – or even unique – from all existing prior art, you will receive a patent on your device.
Selling Your Invention
One should not make an offer to sell an invention to a manufacturer or distributor until a patent has been approved. Even the patent-pending state can be problematic, unless you plan to build and market the item on your own. Some inventors agree to sell their invention outright, for a fixed fee. Others simply license the right to make it to another party while retaining its true ownership. As with any process that involves large sums of money, your best protection may involve hiring an attorney well versed in patent law. In the early stages of the process, this attorney can help you fill out the patent application and may even perform some pre-application due diligence to see if an item already under patent might cause yours to be tossed out. It’s always better to know ahead of time if your idea is nothing new. This same attorney can shepherd you through the entire process and help you arrange for licensing agreements or an outright sale.