If you are ready to take your invention to the next level, here are some basic steps to keep in mind. These six steps will help you approach patent filing.
Step 1. Choose the Right Patent
There are three kinds of patent filing available through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO):
1. Utility patent: protects a new or useful invention
By law, inventors can only obtain utility patents on specific kinds of inventions. In general, inventors cannot patent unmodified natural products, abstract ideas or algorithms unconnected to real world applications.
2. Provisional patent application: secures a temporary, one-year patent-pending status
The inventor must file a utility patent application before the end of the year to maintain patent pending as of the provisional filing date.
3. Design patent: protects an ornamental design
Design patent applications are only for ornamental design. Design patents cannot protect any functional benefit that the design may confer.
Step 2. Document
Inventing happens in two steps: 1) conceiving the invention, and 2) reducing it to practice. Be sure to document both steps. For example, if your invention is a new machine made from combining two existing machines, then you must document when you had the idea to combine the machines to show conception.
Reduction to practice means taking that idea and making it work. For the combination of the two machines, you must document how to successfully combine them. Include proof the invention works and some alternative approaches. Include a schematic, drawing or photo of the combined machine and possible alternative ways of combination.
Step 3. Keep Your Idea Confidential
Patents require absolute novelty, meaning that any public disclosure will compromise any future patent filing. Your disclosure of the invention is just as problematic as another inventor or scientist publishing similar results.
In the United States, an inventor has one year to file a patent application after making a public disclosure. But no other country gives a similar grace period—the minute you breach secrecy most worldwide patent rights are gone. Once your provisional patent application is filed then the patent is pending and you are safe to discuss your invention publicly.
Step 4. Conduct a Patent Search
The breadth of a patent is limited by prior inventions and other publications. You are the expert on your invention. Scour your trade journals, conference presentations, catalogs and other publications.
If you search by yourself, online database searches are like wringing a sponge; the trick is knowing when to stop. Start with broad keywords that describe the field and then add specific keywords that describe the novel features of your invention. The most important thing in conducting a search is to know what makes your invention novel and to take the time to read each reference vigilantly to see if it has that novel thing.
Online patent search services conduct a search of the USPTO database of existing patents and published patent applications for you based on several different criteria and provide you with a report. The report can help you identify possible conflicts in advance and determine the patentability of your invention.
Step 5. File a Patent Application
You can file a patent application on behalf of yourself or your co-inventors. Alternatively, you can hire a registered patent agent or attorney to file your application for you. Patent applications require both legal and technical expertise and even small mistakes can dramatically compromise the value of the patent. That expertise comes at a cost and even a simple patent can cost several thousand dollars.
The advantage of doing work yourself is cost savings. The downside is that you lose the benefit of your lawyer’s experience, even in the small steps. For example, if you write a description of a machine that you invented, you may limit that machine to components that you actually used. A patent attorney with experience in the field may think to suggest or research different components that might work.
As a result, you may have a harder time enforcing your patent against competitors because your description did not take the time to expand on your invention. A competitor may find an easy work-around. Patents are filled with tiny details and getting any one of them wrong may compromise your patent.
Step 6. After Your Patent is Filed
Patents are expensive. Once your patent issues, you might wonder how you will get a return on the investment. Are you going to start a company? Talk with potential investors once you have a filing date. Do you want to sell or license the patent to a company? Find a useful contact at the company once your patent is pending. You do not have to wait until the patent is issued. Some investors invest in pending patents and some companies license pending patents.