A Primer on Patents: Do You Need This Product Protection Plan?
You’ve had a brilliant idea for a product and decided to build a business around it. You’ve conducted some research and development (R&D) and confirmed consumers love what you’ve come up with. Congratulations! Now it’s time to ask yourself an important question: Should you get a patent for your invention? Maybe … or maybe not. To help you decide, let’s find out some of the basics of investing in a legal protection plan for your product.
What is a patent?
When you are granted a patent in the United States, you earn the legal right to stop others from making, marketing, selling or importing your invention in this country, usually for 20 years from the filing date. You can apply for one of three types of patents:
Utility patents are issued most commonly and given to folks who invent machines, processes, improvements or articles made from a manufacturing process. If you’ve invented a new type of software, computer hardware or a pharmaceutical product, a utility patent is for you.
Design patents protect ornamental designs or the visual element (as opposed to a functional element) of an item or product. Think jewelry, furniture and even wine bottles.
Plant patents are for anyone intent on creating Audrey III (that’s a Little Shop of Horrors reference!). If (and only if) you’ve invented a new plant by “combining existing plants that can then reproduce asexually,” you may apply for a plant patent. (If your plant is “naturally occurring,” you won’t be granted a patent. Sorry.)
How do you apply for a patent?
You apply for a patent at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Not surprisingly, the USPTO website has tons of information about patent laws, what products or items can (or cannot) be patented, guidelines regarding patent attorneys – you name it. Check it out!
The bottom line for applying is that you need to a) make sure your invention qualifies for a patent and b) be able to describe all aspects of your invention. In most cases, you will need to supply an abstract, background, summary and detailed description, as well as a conclusion that discusses the long-term advantages and ramifications of your invention. (Check out the paperwork filed by five celebrity inventors, and you’ll see the kind of detail that’s required in a patent application process.)
Do you need a patent lawyer?
If you’ve got endless capital you’re desperate to burn through, hiring a patent lawyer is a fantastic way to do it! On a more serious note, a patent attorney will definitely be able to steer you through the complexities of the application process. But hiring an attorney isn’t an absolute necessity. According to legal advisors at Nolo, it’s entirely possible to navigate the process yourself. As long as you’re careful, thorough and patient, you may well be able to handle the patent application on your own.
What will it cost?
Obviously, the cost of filing for a patent at the USPTO depends on whether or not you hire a patent attorney. According to testimonials posted on Nolo, folks can expect to pay an average of $5,000 per patent when working with a lawyer. The application-filing costs themselves range from $65 to a few hundred dollars for a provisional patent application (PPA). The PPA gives you a “patent pending” status until you file, within one year, for an RPA or regular patent application.
The amount you’ll spend also depends on the size of your company. Nolo points out that independent inventors and small businesses that claim “small entity status” may qualify for a discount. Be sure to inquire within!
Also worth remembering? The friendly (we hope!), knowledgeable (we assume!) folks at the USPTO are required by law to help out individual inventors who apply for a patent without the help of a lawyer.
Why should I get a patent?
Countless small business owners happily (and successfully) create and sell their product without ever having a patent. But if you decide to legally protect your product or invention from competitors, consider these other possible benefits. A patent may help you:
Charge more for your product
Make your company more attractive for potential acquisition or to prospective investors
Contribute to the advancement of your industry. (The thinking here? In exchange for owning the patent on your product, you must publicly share the details of your invention. In this sense, your patent may help others in the field to better understand and even make significant advances.)
Applying for a patent is a big, and, potentially, costly decision. Before you decide, spend some time assessing your product and your business objectives. If you think having a patent will help you reach your long-range goals, make a date with yourself to visit the USPTO resource center to figure out your next important steps.
Want to read more about patents and products? Here are some helpful links: