By Richard Stim, Attorney
Let's say you have a great idea for an invention or product. One that might be in high demand once its produced, and thus lead to profits for you. That makes it tempting to others, however. How can you protect that idea from those who might wish to steal your idea or call it their own?
Obtaining a patent on an invention is a way to secure your exclusive rights. However, hiring a patent lawyer can be pricey.
On the one hand, if the patent is complex or raises complicated legal issues, paying a lawyer's fee might be a wise investment, given that a lawyer's expertise and judgment is necessary to protect your interests.
On the other hand, there are situations where someone might not really need a patent lawyer to obtain a patent. If you are able to handle the process yourself, you could save thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees and have greater control of the process, to boot. Let's look at the steps involved in obtaining a patent on your own.
Countless inventors have successfully navigated the patent system on their own. In fact, federal law requires patent examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to help individual inventors who apply for patents without a lawyer's help.
To obtain a patent, you must first ensure that your invention actually qualifies for a patent and second, fill out the patent application. This second step includes being able to describe all aspects of your invention.
These are not "legal" skills, and learning them is no different than learning any other skill, whether it's auto repair, deck installation, or gourmet cooking. Some steps are easy, others are more difficult. But by taking the process one step at a time, you can acquire a U.S. patent.
Below is a brief outline of the basic steps you will need to take before filing a patent application in the United States. Again, nothing within this process requires a lawyer; there is no court, no judge, no "legal" research.
The USPTO has specific rules, however, which can be complex and hard to follow. Nevertheless, you can follow them, just as you would a recipe in a cookbook.
Record every step of the invention process in a notebook. Describe and diagram every aspect and every modification of the invention, including how you initially envisioned the idea for it.
Depending on the invention, you might also want to build and test a prototype. Document all of these efforts. Sign and date each entry and have two reliable witnesses sign as well.
You cannot get a patent just based on an idea. You must show how your invention works. In addition, your invention must be new (or "novel" in the parlance of patent lawyers). This means it must be different in some important way from all previous inventions in that field.
Don't bother wasting time and money applying for a patent if it's likely that the USPTO's patent examiners will immediately reject your application. To learn more about which type of inventions qualify, see Qualifying for a Patent FAQs.
Applying for a patent is a business decision. Even without a patent attorney or the use of professionally prepared patent drawings, you may pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fees to file and obtain a patent from the USPTO.
Before making this investment, research the market you hope to enter and decide whether it's worth the outlay of funds.
To make sure your invention is new, you must investigate all earlier developments in your field. This involves searching U.S. (and sometimes foreign) patents, as well as other publications like scientific and technical journals, to find related inventions.
Although patent searching is time consuming, it can be mastered with practice. Even if you decide to hire a professional later on in the process, you know more about your invention than anyone, so you are the best person to start the search.
You can start your research on the Internet, but might also want to visit a Patent and Trademark Depository Library. There, you can search earlier patents and get help from a librarian. For more information, see Patent Searching Online.
When you search, you will certainly find other inventions that are similar to yours. In your application, you should show how your invention improves upon or is different from these earlier developments.
When you file with the USPTO, you have a choice. You can either file a full-blown regular patent application (RPA) or a provisional patent application (PPA).
A PPA is not an actual application for the patent itself. Filing a PPA simply allows you to claim "patent pending" status for the invention and involves only a small fraction of the work and cost of a regular patent application.
All that is required to file a PPA is a fee ($65 for micro-entities, $130 for small entities, $260 for large companies); a detailed description of the invention, telling how to make and use it; and an informal drawing.
Then, you must file an RPA within a year of filing the PPA. If you do not, you can no longer claim the PPA filing date. Often, inventors file a PPA in order to gain quick credibility and perhaps attract investors. To learn more about why you might want to file a PPA, see the article Basics of Provisional Patent Applications.
Regular patent application (RPA): Filing an RPA, or regular patent application, starts the examination process at the USPTO, which is necessary for getting the actual patent. To learn what's involved in preparing a regular application, see Understanding Patent Applications.