You can protect your rights to your idea with a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which grants you “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States for twenty years (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, 2011).
What do you need to know about applying for a patent? For one thing, document your idea as soon as you think of it. Simply fill out a form, stating the purpose of your invention and the current date. Then sign it and get someone to witness it. The procedure sounds fairly informal, but you may need this document to strengthen your claim that you came up with the idea before someone else who also claims it. Later, you’ll apply formally for a patent by filling out an application (generally with the help of a lawyer), sending it to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and waiting. Nothing moves quickly through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and it takes a long time for any application to get through the process.
Will your application get through at all? There’s a good chance if your invention meets all the following criteria:
- It’s new. No one else can have known about it, used it, or written about it before you filed your patent application (so keep it to yourself until you’ve filed).
- It’s not obvious. It has to be sufficiently different from everything that’s been used for the purpose in the past (you can’t patent a new color for a cell phone).
- It has utility. It can’t be useless; it must have some value.
Applying for a U.S. patent is only the first step. If you plan to export your product outside the United States, you’ll need patent protection in each country in which you plan to do business, and as you’ve no doubt guessed, getting a foreign patent isn’t any easier than getting a U.S. patent. The process keeps lawyers busy: during a three-year period, PowerSki International had to take out more than eighty patents on the PowerSki Jetboard. It still has a long way to go to match the number of patents issued to some extremely large corporations. Microsoft, for example, recently obtained its ten thousandth patent (Fried, 2011).
Clearly, the patent business is booming. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued more than a half million patents in 2010 (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, 2011). One reason for the recent proliferation of patents is the high-tech boom: over the last decade, the number of patents granted has increased by more than 50 percent.
- You can protect your rights to your idea with a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
- A patent grants you “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States for twenty years.
- To be patentable, an invention must meet all the following criteria: it’s new (no one else can have known about it, used it, or written about it before you filed your patent application); it’s not obvious (it’s sufficiently different from everything that’s been used for the purpose in the past); and it has utility (it must have some value; it can’t be useless).
A friend of yours described a product idea she had been working on. It is a child’s swing set with a sensor to stop the swing if anyone walks in front of it. She came to you for advice on protecting her product idea. What questions would you need to ask her to determine whether her product idea is patentable? How would she apply for a patent? What protection would the patent give her? How long would the patent apply?
Fried, I., “Microsoft Gets 10,000th Patent,” CNET News, http://news.cnet.com/8301-13860_3-10157884-56.html (accessed October 28, 2011).
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, http://www.uspto.gov/web/patents/howtopat.htm (accessed October 28, 2011).