When you have a great idea, the very first thing you need to do is protect your idea before someone steals it, right?
If you base your decision on TV shows or most patent firm websites, the answer is a resounding "Yes!"
An idea is an opportunity
You are far better to base your decision on business sense. When you first have an idea the answer to whether you should get is often "No--but maybe later." Patents are valuable tools, but they are not you single ticket to success. Before you invest thousands of dollars in securing patents, there are several steps you should take to ensure that it's a smart business move.
Viability for Opportunity
As a small business owner in addition to a patent attorney, I've filed for patents for most of my products. However, filing for a patent shouldn't be your first to starting a business.
So what should your first step be, then? Before you move forward with a patent, first evaluate your idea to determine if it is a viable business opportunity. You need to understand your product, your target market, and your competition the best you can. Don't just listen to your gut or feedback from friends or family. Do solid market research and map out your product development path. This may help you avoid spending the time, money and energy to secure a patent for your widget only to find out that there is no interest for it in the real-world marketplace. If it is a dead end, figure that out on the front end so you don't lose a significant amount of money.
Before applying for a patent, consider the following factors:
Make sure your idea isn't infringing on someone else's patent.
Conduct a preliminary patent search. This step will help ensure that your idea hasn't already been patented.
You can either hire a patent attorney to do the search or at a minimum go to Google Patents and do a search yourself.
Develop a basic prototype to determine your product's functionality.
A prototype ensures you have a close-to-final design when you do file for a patent.
Making your product after you've filed a patent is difficult.
Define your market and determine how large it is.
If you target market is too small, your product may not be commercially viable.
Cost to manufacture
Determine how much it will cost to manufacture your product.
If it costs more to make than the market is willing to pay, your invention is just a money pit.
Once you've determined there are no major roadblocks to success, then it is time to consider whether or not you need a patent. Many products in the market aren't patented or even patentable. Depending on the product or business, you may need a trademark or a copyright instead of a patent, both of which can be more cost effective.
A patent is an exclusive right granted by a government to a patent owner for a limited period to stop others from making, using, or selling the patented product without the permission of the patent owner. A patent (like other types of property) can be bought, sold, and licensed.
So why wouldn't everyone get a patent? If you have unlimited time and money, then there is no downside to getting a patent. If you are like 99% of the world, you have a limited amount of both time and money. Here are a few benefits and drawbacks to getting a patent:
Benefits of patents
Manufacturing and Sales
If you're planning to manufacture and sell your product yourself, a patent can help you justify your investment in design, production, and marketing.
If you are manufacturing and selling your product yourself, a patent can give you a comfortable of lead time over those who might knock of" your product. The patent may also give you the peace of mind that your invention is protected by law and can be enforced if someone infringes on your rights.
Planning to License
If you're planning to license your product to another company, a patent can be a valuable asset because you have reduced the licensing company's upfront legal costs and a patent can provide an asset to enable you to ask for a higher royalty payment.
Your patent also gives a company the confidence that they won't be infringing on another patent if they license your idea. Many companies are only willing to consider licensing patented or patent-pending inventions.
Drawbacks of patents
Limited to your ability to enforce it
While a patent can never hurt you, your patent protection is limited to the extent that you are able to enforce your patent.
There are no patent police out there to ensure that your idea isn't stolen. If someone infringes on your patent, you'll need to spend time and money on legal fees to enforce your patent.
Once you have evaluated the opportunity, weighed the pros and cons of a patent, and decided to go move forward, find an expert who can help you. While anyone can technically write a patent (even you), a patent attorney knows the format requirements and the implications of using specific language and terms in a patent to provide the broadest coverage for your patent and avoid legal pitfalls. A patent attorney's job is to write patents. While most patent attorneys will recommend filing a patent, don't surrender your business decision to one advisor. It's important to understand that a patent can be a valuable tool, but there is no guarantee that your invention is patentable or that you still won't face direct competition.