Should You License or Manufacture Your Invention?

Here's what to consider when deciding whether to license your invention or manufacture it yourself.

Inventors can usually make money from their inventions in one of two ways: either (1) by licensing the invention (selling the right to commercially use or develop the invention to another person or entity), or (2) by marketing and manufacturing the invention themselves.

These different options will affect not only how you earn money, but also how much financing you will need in order to proceed. Your success at either will likely depends on your personality, capital investment, and the time you are able to commit.

Two Primary Ways to Make Money from Your Invention

Whether you choose to license your invention or market and manufacture your invention yourself probably depends on your personality, skills, and interests.

  • "Inventor-for-royalties." If you are a typical inventor, you will want to license your invention and collect royalties, or even sell it outright to another person or entity.
  • "Entrepreneurial inventor." If you want to maintain control and you have a competitive business streak, you may wish to start a small business to produce your invention and market it yourself. In that case, you will need substantially more financing to develop, produce, and distribute your product.

To some extent, your decision will be influenced by the nature of your invention. Certain innovations, because of their complexity, scope, or exorbitant cost of production, may lend themselves to licensing.

For example, if you design a new piece of machinery, you may not have the money or factory space to easily mass produce it. Licensing or selling that same idea might yield better results. Often, however, the decision to license is based more on you than on your invention. You must objectively examine your inventing personality.

The Inventor-for-Royalties

Licensing or assigning rights to your invention for cash is a simpler, less expensive route than manufacturing and selling your invention. Licensing or assigning your invention is often preferable for inventors who want to make money, but care primarily about innovating and spending time in the office or lab.

Prepare and file a provisional patent application online, with Nolo’s easy-to-use Online Provisional Patent Application.

Licensing Your Invention

What is a license? A license is simply an agreement in which you let someone else commercially use or develop your invention for a period of time. In return, you receive money, usually either a one-time payment or continuing payments called royalties. As the owner of the invention, you will be the "licensor" and the party receiving the license for your invention is called the "licensee."

Advantages of licensing. What makes a license appealing is that the licensee assumes all of the business risks, from manufacturing to marketing to attempting to stop people who infringe on the product's patents. Depending on the specifics of the agreement, the inventor/licensor might sit by the mailbox and wait for the quarterly royalty checks.

Disadvantages of licensing. While licensing means less work, it can also mean less profit. The entity that accepts the risk of mass producing and selling your product will generally claim a much greater percentage of the revenue. Moreover, by licensing, you lose control over the execution of "your" idea.

Chance of licensing success is low. Unfortunately, the odds of licensing success can be low. A study by Ed Zimmer and Ron Westrum revealed that only about 13% of inventors who attempted to license their invention were successful. (Note: This data is based on the persons who responded to the study, which probably skews the percentage positively. Those who were unsuccessful were probably less likely to respond at all.)

How to license your invention. When you seek a license, you'll need to take the following steps: find the right people to review your idea, get the money necessary to develop and protect your invention, and present your invention to a licensee in a marketable fashion.

Assigning the Rights to Your Invention

An inventor-for-royalties can permanently assign all rights to the invention for cash.

How does assignment work? An assignment is a permanent transfer of ownership rights. When you assign your invention, you are the assignor, and whoever purchases the rights is the assignee. An assignment is like the sale of a house, after which the seller no longer has any rights over the property. As the assignor, you may receive a lump sum payment or periodic royalty payments.

Is it an assignment or a license agreement? The terms assignment and license are sometimes used interchangeably. And sometimes, these two types of agreements seem to have the exact same effect, as in the case of an unlimited exclusive license, in which a licensee obtains the sole right to market the invention for an unlimited period of time. For this reason, you or your attorney must examine the specific conditions and obligations of each agreement to determine whether it is an assignment or license rather than simply relying on terms such as assignment and license.

The Entrepreneurial Inventor

For those who place considerable weight on the entrepreneurial side of the scales, the financial reward of a license or assignment may seem unappealing--royalties often range from 2% to 10% of the net revenues. Such inventors often choose to form a business and to manufacture and market the product themselves. Of course, this will require considerably more financial assistance than licensing.

What is your chance of success? The same study by Zimmer and Westrum (cited above) revealed that close to half of the inventors who decided to take control of producing and marketing their invention claimed to be successful. That may be because the inventor with a strong entrepreneurial drive is usually obsessed with growing the business and thrives on challenges--for example, how to manufacture the invention efficiently, how to acquire distribution, how to market to target audiences, and how to eke out a profit from retail sales.

Advantages and disadvantages of marketing and manufacturing your invention. The financial rewards are potentially much greater--which is precisely why it appeals to more entrepreneurial inventors. On the negative side, manufacturing and marketing are incredibly risky, and can cause tremendous anxiety and engulf your personal life.

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