Patent Help: What Is It?

Patent help can be sought from a patent lawyer. A patent protects your intellectual property.If you've come up with an invention idea, protecting it from use by other people helps protect not only your ability to make a living from your invention but also the spirit of innovation that drives our culture forward. You can gain this protection through the patent process.

Why Is a Patent Important?

Patents protect your process or invention. There are three types of patents:

  1. Utility patents, the most common form, protect processes, machines, manufactured articles or compositions of matter, as well as improvements on any of those.
  2. Design patents protect ornamental designs and forms for manufactured articles.
  3. Plant patents are granted to those who invent or discover asexually reproduced new varieties of plants that are not found in nature.

Patents are liketrademarks (which protect your business symbols,slogans, and trade dress), copyrights (which protect works of authorship), and trade secrets (private information that gives you a competitive edge).

Hundreds of thousands of people have filed for patents over the years, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office(PTO) has resources to help you to complete the process.

Qualifying for a Patent

While you can file for a patent without an attorney, the process can be tricky. The first step in filing for a patent is to make sure your invention qualifies. Second, you'll need to be able to deliver a very clear and detailed description of your invention.

To qualify for a patent, your invention must be new, useful, and non-obvious. This means there can't be anything out there like it. It has to solve a problem in a unique and specialized way, and the solution must show true innovation—it can't be something that someone educated in the field would come up with from a simple leap of logic.

You can't patent:

  • Abstract ideas
  • Laws of nature
  • Works of authorship (those are protected by copyright)
  • Physical phenomena
  • Inventions deemed offensive to public morality

Ideas vs. Inventions

While you can't patent an abstract idea, there's a fine line between that idea and the invention that follows. You don't necessarily need a working prototype, or even extensive technical know-how, to have an invention. Think about the idea behind the mousetrap: "I need a way to control pests and kill or capture mice."

When you progress beyond that and think, "What if I use a spring-loaded snapping device on a board that could clamp down before the mouse escapes?" you're on your way to a real invention. If you can describe the problem to be solved and how your invention will solve that problem, with enough description and drawings that someone else could build and use it, you might be on your way to patent protection.

Recording Your Invention

When filing a patent application, you must carefully record every step of the process. Describe every part of the invention, function, step, and change you make. Even outline the innovation that led you to come up with the idea. If you can, build and test a working prototype. Every entry in your journal should be signed, dated, and witnessed.

Also make sure your invention meets the qualifications for a patent. Your invention must be something you create. It must have a function and solve a problem. In addition, it cannot bepublished or publicly demonstrated anywhere before you file your patent. That means you have to keep it secret up until the time you file your application.

Description and Drawing Patent Help

Not everyone has the ability to produce detailed drawings or descriptions. If you need help, you can reach out to:

  • Patent illustrators
  • Local inventors groups
  • Friends and family
  • Engineering firms
  • College students

Just be careful about protecting your invention, and do not reveal it publicly. Once it's revealed, you only have 12 months to file your patent application or you lose your exclusive rights.

You also run the risk of the person you share your idea with stealing it and making it on their own. If you do seek help from one of these services, protect yourself through a confidentiality or nondisclosure agreement. This is simply a legal document that prevents anyone from discussing the details of your idea before it becomes public knowledge. You might also consider a provisional patent application, though there are risks in this as well, which we'll discuss later.

Finally, you can learn a lot about how to describe an invention by reading existing patents. Sit down and do some research. Look for patents that are like yours, and see how they have been described and illustrated. A little knowledge goes a long way.

What Does a Patent Cost?

Patenting your invention is a business investment and isn't cheap. Make sure it has commercial potential before applying. The patent application fees alone are going to run around $1,500; hiring an attorney and a professional to create drawings and descriptions will increase the cost.

A provisional patent generally costs between $5,000 and $6,000. A full patent costs between $10,000 and $15,000. This includes the costs of prior art searches, the application itself, legal fees, and patent fees, among others.

The Prior Art Search

Next, you will need to search for prior art. This means checking through all other patents to make sure there isn't already a protected invention that's very similar to yours. If there is, you'll need to outline exactly how yours is different and unique and still eligible for patenting. You'll want to search U.S. and foreign patent databases, technical journals, scientific publications, and anywhere else you can think of to find related inventions.

You are better off finding these inventions in advance, so don't skimp on the search. It might take a long time, but when you have this knowledge, you can prepare a defense for your invention. While the internet is a good place to start, you'll also want to visit a nearby Trademark Depository Library. This will allow you not only to expand your search to older patentsbut also get help from a trained librarian.

Getting a patent on your product is an intensive, detailed, and expensive process. You must be as thorough as possible every step of the way. Even the smallest oversight can cost you everything. Your patent search should be exhaustive, using internet and print sources, and you should keep searching until you find prior art. You might want to pay the extra money to get patent help from a professional.

Steps to File

Finally, you'll want to file your application for a patent. There are different kinds of patent applications you might file:

  • Provisional Patent Application, or PPA, is often the first step toward getting your protection in place. This costs between $65 and $260, depending on whether you're a micro entity, a small business, or a large corporation. You'll need to include in your application a detailed description, instructions on how to use and build it, and drawings.
  • Regular Patent Application, or RPA,is more involved and requires a more detailed description of all aspects of the invention, technical drawings, and everything that might be needed to reproduce the invention by someone with average skill in the field.

A provisional patent acts as a "placeholder" to keep your spot in line. U.S. Patent Law prioritizes protection based on a first-to-file concept, meaning if someone files a similar invention before you do, you can lose your chance. A provisional patent gives you one year to file a full patent application and saves your filing date. It also lets you use a "Patent Pending" label, which puts others on notice that if they use your invention, they might be setting themselves up for a lawsuit when your patent goes through.

A full patent application begins a thorough examination by a patent examiner. If the examination goes smoothly, you'll get your patent and 20 years of monopoly over your invention. You can stop others from producing, using, or selling the patented innovation, or you can license it as you see fit.

Mistakes to Avoid

The internet offers tons of information about how to file for a patent. While much of it is great, much of it is also questionable. Some mistakes inventors should avoid include:

  • Selling or publicly revealing the invention and not filing for a patent. As soon as your invention enters commercial use, you have 12 months to file your patent application. However, given that the U.S. is a first-to-file nation, filing before you offer the invention for sale is a good idea. The last thing you want is for someone else to steal your invention and beat you to the punch.
  • Not disclosing all aspects of your invention in your provisional patent application. This could result in your application getting refused and you losing your priority status. PPAs are not just formalities to save your place in line.When you file your provisional application, include the same level of detail you would use on your formal application.If your description isn't detailed, you won't be able to use it to back up your filing date.
  • Failing to conduct a thorough patent search. This can be devastating to your intellectual property efforts. There have been nearly a million United States patents. If you search and don't find an invention like yours, it's a red flag. It's almost impossible to not find something relevant to your invention if you've done a thorough search.

When to Seek Professional Help

You might consider whether the efforts you're putting in on your own outweigh the help you'd get from a professional. A single mistake on your application can be costly. Start by doing some legwork on your own, and bring in a pro if you decide you need one.

If you do too much on your own, you might find it very expensive to go back and correct errors that could've been done right the first time. It's not always easy to edit and correct a draft. It can take a long time for an attorney to read a draft looking for errors. And if he or she finds some, they might need to start the application over from scratch.

When people go it alone, they might even overdo the description part of the application. They fill it with pages of irrelevantinformation but leave out critical details that can cost them their patent. While you know your invention better than anyone, an experienced attorney knows what information will get you a patent. They can guide you and help you describe the invention in such a way as to get through the process smoothly.

A patent attorney can also help you avoid obviousness. Cases like Wyers v. Master Lock and Tokai v. Easton show just how easy it is to fall into the "obvious" trap. In these, the courts have been known to take the stance that if twopatents show two different steps, combining those steps is logical. Thus, when patent A establishes X and patent B establishes Y, then X-Y are an obvious logical leap.

Saving Money and Pro Bono Patent Help

The USPTO does have a pro bono legal program that supports independent inventors. Before applying for this program:

  • Know whether you qualify for help
  • Take a free certification course through the website
  • Develop your invention
  • Find out whether you are a micro entity or small business.

Micro entities that have applied for fewer than five patents, earned less than three times the local median household income in the prior year, and don't share interest with someone who earns more can pay 25% of the normal fees. Qualified small businesses pay half the usual fees.

In addition, submitting your application through the USPTO EFS Web Filing system can save you up to $400 in fees. Paying everything at once when you send in your application will also avoid late surcharges, which can cost up to $130.

Investors can also help pay for the costs of patents, but require you to give up a percentage of your patent ownership by taking on partners. As discussed above, you'll need nondisclosure agreements to protect against revealing the invention before it's patented.

Can Delays Help?

The patenting process, from application to approval, can take up to several years. This can affect your plans to market your invention, particularly if it hasa short potential for commercialization.

It's rare, but in certain circumstances, delays can help your patent protection. Remember that once your application is on file, you can begin to create it using the "Patent Pending" label.

During this process, people might still copy your invention and make money for a couple of years before you get your patent. But the moment you receive a patent you can sue for an injunction against further sales and negotiate for a license with the copier or sell them the patent outright. You might be able to make a lot of money from that license or sale since the copier has already invested and profited from your invention.

Finally, if it takes longer than three years from the date of filing for you to get your patent, the PTO will add time onto your term to make up for the delay. This can actually end up granting you protection for more than the usual 20 years.

How to Find a Patent Attorney

When you decide to get an attorney for patent help, you want to get the right help from the right lawyer. Not all patent attorneys are created equal. Most have degrees in engineering, whether mechanical, electrical, chemical, or computer. Make sure the attorney's field matches your invention. If you're patenting a new chemical compound, for example, you don't want an electrical engineer.

Make sure the attorney you're working with has plenty of experience and charges reasonable fees. Ask about their successful cases and to give you a detailed quote for their services in writing. Next, ask them what kind of services they offer for patent searches. Attorneys that use independent as well as in-house searches are likely to get more significant results.

Finally, make sure that attorney is someone personable that you get along with. This is someone you'll be working with for a few years at least, so you need to form a solid relationship.

If you need help with a patent, post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. These lawyers all have 15 or more years of experience, come from top-rated educational institutions, and have served Fortune-500 companies. They're the top attorneys in their field, and they can make sure your patent application goes as smoothly as possible.