What is a Patent?
Patents are a right granted to an inventor that allows them to exclude all others from making, using, or selling their invention for 20 years.
In the U.S. the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reviews and approves patent applications, which provide protection against others stealing their idea. Once approved, the patent holder is then the sole person or company who is permitted to make, use, or sell the product, process, or solution to a technological problem that they have developed and registered. All others are prohibited, unless they are given permission.
There are three major types of patents:
- Design patents – anyone who creates a new design for a product can apply for a design patent. Examples include beverage bottles (think of the shape of the Coca-Cola container) or furniture (such as the kneeling chair).
- Plant patents – botanists involved in grafting and creating new hybrid plant forms can apply for a plant patent. Examples include the Smooth Angel rose or drought-tolerant corn.
- Utility patents – anyone who invents or discovers “any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof” can apply for a utility patent. Examples include the little green drink stopper Starbucks gives out with its cups or the hoverboard type of skateboard.
The patent process
While many inventors may want to rush out and apply for patent protection as soon as they come up with a revolutionary new thingamajig, many experts suggest otherwise. Why? The patenting process can cost in the neighborhood of $25,000. So unless you’re sure your idea is commercially viable – meaning that you can make money from it – you may want to hold off filling out the paperwork.
More important than protecting your idea is confirming that it has any value. Will others pay to buy it or use it or to incorporate it into their product? Why spend money on protection for a product no one wants, is the bottom line.
So before you start work on that patent application:
- Either fill out a disclosure document with the U.S. Patent office, which documents the date of conception, or detail your idea in an inventor’s notebook. That establishes the date on which you came up with the idea, in case anyone ever questions the timeline.
- Check to be sure no one else has already patented your idea at the U.S. Patent Office.
- Invest in a market feasibility study conducted by a company that specializes in them. The Wisconsin Innovation Service Center may be able to help point you in the right direction. Such studies look at start-up costs, market demand, safety, and production feasibility to determine if there is a market for your new idea. They cost a few hundred dollars, which is better than the thousands the patent will cost.
- Once you are sure your idea is sellable, consider proceeding to patent it.
The patent process can take several years and your application can be rejected for a number of reasons, such as if it is too close to another existing patent.