So you’ve invented something—that’s great! The next step is to patent it, right?

Unfortunately, there is no “cheap” way to patent anything in the United States. If you don’t believe it, look at the official U.S. Patent Offices’ (USPO) fee schedule. Even for small or micro entities, successfully patenting an invention is going to cost several hundred dollars (at least). For “regular” companies and businesses, these prices can double. And even after you have the patent, enforcing it will cost you even more.

For example, Jim Krestetter, writing for CNET, discovered a survey conducted last year by the American Intellectual Property Law Association that found that the median cost of filing or defending against a patent lawsuit was a substantial $650,000. And that’s for companies that have less than $1 million at stake.

However, unless you want to damage the hard work that you’ve devoted to your product, patents are important. So how can you get the best protection in the most cost-effective manner possible?

Wait Until the Product Is Finished

It’s tempting to rush out to get what’s called a provisional patent in order to secure your invention as soon as possible. That way, you can label the product with “Patent Pending” and consider your invention protected—right?

To quote Kirk Teska, an adjunct law professor at Suffolk University Law School, provisional patents are “quick, cheap, and worthless.”

First of all, they’re not really patents. They’re technically just patent applications or placeholders.  They give the inventor the right to file a true patent within a 12-month time frame. This means that if you fail to further the product’s development during that time frame, you will be forced to return to the beginning of the process. And filing a provisional patent has a cost as well, which means you’re spending even more money on the process as a whole.

There are a few advantages to provisional patents, though—what some people call “cheap patents.”  For one, these applications allow you to secure your priority. This means that if you successfully complete a full patent application within 12 months, you can use the date that you filed the provisional patent application as the inception date of your invention.

Generally, though, inventors fail when it comes to filing such provisional documentation. They rush through the process before their products are finished, and by the time all of the tweaks have been completed, the final product varies significantly enough from the proposed provisional design that the patent won’t effectively protect the invention. That’s why it’s best to wait until you really have a finished product before you file an actual patent application.

Narrow Your Patent’s Focus

Instead of patenting a complete idea, it may be cheaper and easier for you to narrow the focus and only patent the original designs, rather than the complete product. By eliminating variants or added components from a patent application, you can secure the rights to the core of an idea and then work out the kinks later.

This is similar to the way that Dyson created some of their world-famous vacuum cleaners. They first patented the tiny motors in the machines and then built the full framework around them.  Later, additional parts were patented until they had an essentially complete device protected by 230 patents or provisional patents.

If the company had instead tried to patent everything from the hose to the power cord at the start, they would have been wrapped up in the patent application process for years and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the patent search and dispute process. Meanwhile, other competitors could have been cashing in on their designs.

Think Carefully About a Patent Lawyer

Patent lawyers are an important part of the patent application process—they’re the folks that put the stamp of approval on the ironclad language in your patent application.

However, working with one will cost you thousands of dollars right off the bat. First you have the retainer payment, then the hourly fees, and – before you know it – your lawyer bill will be higher than your R&D budget ever was. That’s something that both Apple and Google found out the hard way.

You can save yourself a good deal of money by bypassing the patent lawyers (or by working with UpCounsel’s team of advisors), but if you go it alone, you must be extremely careful to ensure your patent application contains the necessary language. This is an example of using elbow grease instead of greasing palms. By doing much of the research yourself and re-drafting your application until it fulfills all of your needs, you can skip the lawyer’s office.

However, foregoing a patent lawyer is not recommended if you’re the least bit hesitant about the process. Remember—defending against infringement claims can cost as much as $650,000 or more, even for individual inventors. In many of these cases, having appropriate legal counsel from the start represents a much more cost effective solution.

Drafting Your Own Patent Application

If you do decide to go this route, take some advice from the professionals.

As James Yang, a professional patent lawyer, notes, when he drafts an application, he spends 70- to 80-percent of his time and effort creating an excellent product description. This is the “meat” of your patent and what will legally separate you from your competitors. It’s in your best interest to describe your invention clearly and in great detail, so that it won’t face any hurdles during the application process and can be easily defended if it’s challenged in the future.

Fortunately, you don’t need convoluted legal jargon to do that. In fact, clear writing makes the application more user-friendly and, thus, easier to approve and enforce, according to Russ Krajec, a patent attorney. Krajec states that confusing language will not only cause the patent investigators to skip over essential information, but it may confuse judges and juries in the future when you’re trying to defend your rights.

Keep Your Organization Small

You can secure considerable discounts by operating with a skeleton crew. The U.S. Patent Office gives 50-percent and 75-percent discounts to small and micro entities to grease the wheels of progress and to give small-time inventors a leg up on their corporate competition. You can take advantage of these benefits by operating as one of these small entities. So how do you qualify?

To be classified as a small entity by the USPO, the inventor “certifies that (a) neither the applicant nor any inventor has been named as the inventor on more than four previously filed patent applications, and (b) neither the applicant nor any inventor had, in the preceding the calendar year, a gross income exceeding three times the median household income for that year.”

Some small entities can be classified as micro entities as well, but only if they work for an institution of higher education and state that the invention will be retained by the organization.

A Patent Just Isn’t Cheap

There’s really no easy way around it—patenting your invention will cost you money. While many gurus and patent lawyers push provisional patents, these documents are not truly patents. If you go this route, you’ll eventually have to delve deeper into the process and spend more money to actually patent your invention.

By using some or all of the tips and techniques above, you can lower your overall costs and keep more of your money for yourself. However, never cut corners if you have a lot to lose. Patents are designed to protect inventions and the inventors behind them. If you file a patent that isn’t strong enough to do that, you could be out both your money and your invention in the end. Do your homework and get the level of protection you need from the start.

About the author

Matt Faustman

Matt Faustman

Matt is the co-founder and CEO at UpCounsel. Matt believes in the power of online platforms to change antiquated ways of life and founded UpCounsel to make legal services efficiently accessible. He is responsible for our overall vision and growth of the UpCounsel platform. Before founding UpCounsel, Matt practiced as a startup and business attorney.

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