How to Avoid Patent Infringement Lawsuits
Are you planning to sell a new product or service? Have you checked to make sure that your idea doesn’t infringe on another company’s patent? Or, if you’ve been selling a product or service for a while, are you sure that another company isn’t infringing on your intellectual property?
Patent infringement lawsuits can cause big trouble, even for big businesses. For example, Samsung and Apple are engaged in a ferocious legal battle over their respective smartphone and tablet feature sets. Most recently, Apple requested an injunction to block sales of Samsung's Galaxy Tab and Galaxy S in the United States because of infringement on Apple's design patents. If approved, that could spell disaster for Samsung's tablet product line.
To ensure that your small business doesn’t get caught up in a legal drama over patent infringement or intellectual property theft, take these precautionary measures.
- Check for existing patents related to your new product. Before starting mass production of your product, search for keywords related to your work in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s databases to make sure that your concepts haven’t already been claimed by someone else. If your business idea does rely on a concept or invention that’s already been patented, you may need to license the existing patent and pay a fee to the inventor.
- Protect your own intellectual property. If you’ve created a product and plan to distribute it, it’s important to submit a patent application that thoroughly describes your proprietary work. It’s not necessary to have a prototype, but you do need to provide a thorough description of your invention, with supplementary sketches. A registered patent lawyer can help you draft your application. The process can be onerous, but if you’ve invented something that you believe is valuable as a business endeavor, the legal protection will prove invaluable.
- Maintain your patent. After registering and being approved for a patent or trademark, you’ll need to pay maintenance fees every three and a half years to prevent the patent from lapsing. (See the fee schedule here.)
- Watch out for competitors. It’s up to you to look out for infringements on your inventions. Stay up-to-date on industry news and new patent applications, so that you’ll be aware of another company using your protected material. If you believe someone is stealing your ideas, send a strongly worded letter from your lawyer threatening legal action. The mere threat of a lawsuit may be enough to scare your competitor off, especially if you notify the company before it's significantly invested in the concept.
Kathryn Hawkins is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.