Everything begins with an idea: Everything that makes up our world wasn’t there before someone thought it up. Say you have an excellent idea for an invention or product that might rock the market and make you really rich. Someone else might want to steal the idea for themselves or has a similar concept that puts you in the backseat. How can you protect yourself from that?
Getting a patent is one way to secure exclusive rights to a product or invention. This article will discuss how to patent an idea for free and save your intellectual property from infringement.
What Is a Patent?
A patent is any type of intellectual property that gives its owner the right to legally exclude others from producing, using, or selling that invention within a given timeframe. In summary, with a patent, you can prohibit others from making any profit off your design (or, in this case, idea).
To be granted a patent, your intended idea or invention must be new, inventive, and can be made or used.
There are some things you can’t patent, such as:
- Mathematical formulas and natural laws
- Natural substances
- Scientific principles
- Physical processes (e.g., dance routines)
- Medical methods and procedures
- Drugs that endanger the user
- Inventions made for nefarious (criminal) purposes
- Inventions whose existence violates existing scientific laws
Obtaining A Patent: To Lawyer Up or Not to Lawyer Up?
Since patenting an idea is the only surefire way to secure exclusive rights, hiring a good legal service for this purpose can be quite expensive.
If a patent’s nature would raise complicated legal issues, having a patent lawyer is not a bad idea. Patent law can be dicey, and a lawyer’s expertise may be a necessary investment for protecting your interests.
On the flip side, if it’s not so difficult to obtain a patent, you could be saving thousands of dollars in lawyer fees and get a high level of control over the whole process.
Let’s look at what it would take to obtain a patent on your own.
Filing A Patent On Your Own
Now that you’ve decided to take your idea or invention to the next level, here’s how to file a patent:
Step 1: Choose the Right Patent
In the United States, patents are filed through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, also known as the USPTO. The USPTO typically offers three kinds of patents:
A utility patent is only available for specific kinds of inventions. You cannot get a utility patent for abstract ideas, natural products that have not been modified, or algorithms that have no real-world use.
Provisional patents help secure inventors with a temporary patent-pending status, usually for one year. You must file an application for a utility patent before the end of the year to maintain this exclusive status.
Design patents are specifically created for ornamental designs and cannot offer any protection for any functional benefit that the design may have.
When filing a patent application, you should remember that USPTO fees are based on the scale of the applicant. The larger your business, the higher your charges.
Step 2: Document Your Process
The inventing process involves two significant steps: Thinking up the invention and bringing it into existence. It’s vital to document both steps. Even when your design is based on another, for instance, a new machine that combines two existing ones, you must show where the idea to create it was conceived.
The second step involves making the invention work. Taking a cue from our earlier example, you should be able to show how the existing machines can be combined, as well as some alternative approaches. You can typically do this with a schematic, drawing, or photo.
Another important tip regarding patenting inventions is that any type of documentation is better than none at all, but a lab notebook is ideal for keeping to scientific standards. Remember that dates are important and you should keep records of them.
Step 3: Keep Your Idea Confidential
Whatever you do, ensure that your ideas are kept strictly confidential. All relevant or irrelevant information should remain undisclosed, as any exposed information could compromise your patent.
If you’re in the US, there’s a grace period of about a year to file a patent after any public disclosures. However, in other parts of the world, you may not be so lucky; once it’s out there, most exclusive rights are gone. If you have filed an application, the patent has a pending status, and you are free to discuss it.
If you feel you must talk to someone before you apply for a patent, make them sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Step 4: Run a Patent Search
It’s essential to research the patents in your field or industry. This helps ensure your patent covers all the bases with exclusive rights to your invention.
You can conduct a patent search using the USPTO database, trade journals, catalogs, conference presentations, and other publications. Because patent searches can be complex, it’s advisable to use online resources.
Be sure to consider synonyms, abbreviations, and spelling variations (UK and US spellings). Also, save your data, so you can always repeat your searches.
Step 5: File a Patent Application
As mentioned, you can file for a patent on your invention on your own, or seek the services of patent attorneys to do the filing for you.
Patent applications take a lot of technical and legal expertise, and the potential for mistakes is extensive. Such expertise is costly, with a simple patent sometimes costing thousands of dollars.
Going through the patenting process yourself would save you a lot of bucks, but you’ll miss out on the advantages of a lawyer’s experience. For example, your description may not fully expound on your invention, whereas an experienced lawyer would think of alternative scenarios and cover all angles.
Exclusive rights are harder to enforce with a poorly formulated, limited patent, which defeats the whole purpose of a patent in the first place. Competitors are always looking for loopholes; any missed details may just give them what they need.
However, you can still do a lot with self-made applications for patents. For one, you can file for a provisional patent, which doesn’t have any strict formalities a utility patent would. Drafting and filing a provisional application can be done on the USPTO web portal. You should also have a lawyer look at it before it is filed. This is cheaper than having the lawyer draft it, but you’d still get an expert legal opinion.
You can also draft a utility patent application yourself, using a related patent as a template. Just ensure that you include your own draft drawings, all relevant references, and claims that differentiate your invention from others. This way, even if you require a lawyer, the bulk of the work has already been done at no cost.
Alternative Methods Of Filing A Patent
There are two ways you can actually patent an invention for free, sort of.
If you cannot afford an agent or attorney, look to the Patent Pro Bono Program or the Law School Clinic Certification Program, both provided by the USPTO.
The Patent Pro Bono Program pairs registered patent agents or attorneys with inventors. The attorneys are all volunteers, so inventors do not have to worry about paying them. However, it’s not an entirely free process, as you would still need to pay all the USPTO filing fees.
The Law School Clinic Certification Program, on the other hand, involves law school clinics providing free legal services to inventors. Law students provide these services under the guidance of an experienced supervising attorney at the law school. This is perhaps the easiest “how to patent an idea for free” method.