So you have an idea for something you think might be groundbreaking. It’s exciting: you may be sitting on an invention that could make you rich. You’re running through the possibilities and you’re starting to see your life transformed by the kind of innovation that could be a real game-changer. And then you wonder: do I need to patent this – right now?
It’s an understandable impulse, but you should know a couple of things at the outset. First, not all products can or should be patented. Second, patent law is a lot more subtle and complex than you may think. Before you embark on the long and expensive process of filing a patent, you should make sure you know what you’re getting into – and that you’re justified in going forward.
- Make sure it’s unique
Innovation is a messy business. People can come up with virtually the same idea independently and find themselves in unexpected competition. In some cases, legal challenges can follow when one company accuses another of intellectual property theft – even when the defendant was unaware of the plaintiff’s existence.
The first step to take before looking into a patent is conducting thorough research of the marketplace to determine whether your idea is truly unique. It can be harder than it seems: even perfectly distinct products have many commonalities, and figuring out if a product is genuinely new can be difficult. Still, it’s best to know as much as you can about what’s out there before considering a patent.
- Understand the limitations
Patents are designed to allow innovators to bring their product to market with the reasonable expectation that it won’t be copied and sold by a competitor. But while they do provide a measure of legal protection, they’re not bulletproof: for nearly all patented products, competitors find a way to deliver virtually the same product with minor tweaks – or sometimes with none at all.
Innovators have a legal recourse, but it’s limited: ideas are so free-flowing that they can rarely be shown to completely belong to anyone. And even in clear-cut cases, it can be extremely difficult and costly to pursue a legal remedy. A basic rule of thumb is that the more innovative the idea, the more protection the patent will receive. A small tweak to an existing invention won’t be guaranteed, but a giant leap forward in technology is easier to defend as being yours.
- Get the help you need
When you’ve thoroughly researched the marketplace and determined that your product is different enough from everything else out there to deserve legal protection, it’s time to file a patent. But that’s not easy: it can be an expensive, laborious process almost always conducted with the aid of experts. You’ll find help at Legal Zoom, which assists innovators in assembling their patent applications and fielding challenges from the patent office. Make sure you take the process seriously, because it’s an important part of building your business.