1. Come up with an idea and follow through.
We’ve all done it, been somewhere and something wasn’t to our liking, thinking, “This could be better if…” Lots of people have great ideas, but they skip one MAJOR step, and that’s follow through. In these rough and ready times of firings and lay-offs, wouldn’t it be nice to have a backup plan? Taking an idea, and turning it into a patent is easier than you might expect, and if the idea’s a good one it might even ease your financial burdens.
All it takes is a way to improve either an existing product, or just solve a problem you face in your day to day routine. The idea can be simple or complex, but you need a solution to get the ball rolling. (Note: Simpler ideas tend to be easier, and cheaper, to patent.)
2. Make a record and/or drawing of the idea.
Once you have the idea, it’s time to establish a paper trail. There are multiple ways of doing so, but here are a few simple suggestions. (A thing to keep in mind, however, is these records will never replace a patent. It should only serve as additional information to your patent at a later date, and for invention brainstorming.)
Keeping a journal is a good first step. In the journal you can jot down ideas, and scribble out pictures. The important thing is to have someone else sign and date each entry as a witness. The best sources are credible sources, such as professionals (i.e. lawyers, doctors, accountants, engineers, etc.), but as they might tend to charge for such a service, a coworker or friend will achieve the same goal.
Recording ideas in computer files is also helpful. These files contain important information like “Date Created” and “Date Last Modified.” The tricky thing about computer files is creating pictures, and unless you’re an engineer with technical programs, scanning in drawings may become overwhelming.
Which leads me to my next method of keeping a record of your ideas, and that’s using an engineer for a design job. Whether you have a friend who’s good at committing abstract ideas to concrete solutions on paper, or you want to hire an engineering design firm for drawings, this is a good step. It’s also helpful because if you’re not a technical person yourself, the friend or engineer can also troubleshoot the idea early to let you know if it’s going to work or not. Again, all drawings should be signed and dated.
3. Do basic research of existing patents.
This is where the grunt work starts to kick in, but remember, if you’ve at least started to follow through with your idea, getting through this step just got easier. Nothing in this step needs to get real technical, as a good patent lawyer will want to do an official search to make sure he/she is not wasting time for either party. The overall goal of this step is to make sure your idea is not currently patented.
Online searches are best, and try to research by the simplest description of your idea. You should also include alternate definitions of your idea, as some people would describe your idea differently. (An example of this is when I came up for the idea of the “Nearly” Universal OH. It wasn’t enough to research just “cup holder,” I had to research similar terms like “beverage holder” and “drink holder.”)
Here are two websites that offer free patent searches, without creating any type of account.
While here are two others that might be a little more informative, but you have to create an account or pay a subscription.
4. Research and interview patent lawyers.
This step also requires a little work, but if you’ve done a decent search in the last step, this one will be easy. What you’re trying to accomplish here is finding a lawyer you feel comfortable with. Most lawyers will do a quick consultation over the phone, but need cash to meet face to face. I thanked these types of lawyers for their time, but moved on. To me it seemed like buying the car, AND THEN taking it for a test drive.
Finding a good lawyer requires calling more than one, and some might have a low fee or free initial consultation in their offices. I’m not saying you should be wasting their time, but as you now believe in and are committed to your idea, this is where you’ll gather the information you need to actually apply for a patent. Make sure to take your records and drawings with you, and as was said earlier, most patent lawyers have engineering backgrounds and can tell you if your idea will work or not. (If your budget is low, try searching for pro bono lawyers.)
Key questions to ask are about costs and timelines. Ask for ballpark figures, and although you can’t hold them to those, a good professional tends to give “worst case scenario” estimates. What will the patent search run? How quick is the turnaround? Who conducts the patent search (i.e. in-house or contracted outside)? How much will the filing of the patent cost? Average time until patent is approved? What costs could be involved after a patent is issued? Also ask if the firm has applied for patents similar to your idea as far as complexity.
5. Choose a patent lawyer and apply for a patent.
Please, please, PLEASE understand that the “cheap and free” ways to file for a patent yourself, advertised throughout the internet, will not offer you maximum protection once your idea takes off.
The proper way to do this is by choosing a professional you feel comfortable with, is within your budget, and has the experience to file for your patent properly. “Within your budget” will most likely be the important factor, as filing for a patent is an expensive process.
Although every filing is different, here are a few figures from my experiences when filing. (Remember, my simple mind comes up with simple ideas, so my filings have been towards the low end.) Patent searches ran between $800 and $1,200 US. Filings were right around $8,000 US, with extra money in case the claim on the patent had to be argued in court. (I chose Hughes Law Firm, www.inventionlaw.com, north of Seattle, WA. The lawyer I worked with was very understanding, explained any issues that might arise with my invention, and the prices were on the lower end of the firms I interviewed.)
As you can see, although a decent initial investment is needed, the opportunity to sell or license your idea is limitless. (You’ll even be called an “inventor.”) If you’re ready to take the next step, merely look around you, and think, “How can I make this world better?”
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