WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU APPLY FOR A PATENT
Many people wrongly think patents are all about rewarding creativity and keeping ideas protected and secret, but actually the opposite is true: They’re about making sure inventors don’t keep their ideas a secret and that they share their creations with the public, says Eric Leininger, CEO of PatentDive, which makes software to guide inventors through the patent-application process.
Leininger notes that the idea of patents goes back hundreds of years to Venice, Italy, where glass artisans created stunning works of art. Their unique composition of materials produced many colors and textures of glass, and this information was often a strictly guarded secret, Leininger says. The problem was that when an artisan died, the details about his unique methods and compositions would die with him, so no one could replicate them. The government didn’t want people to be afraid to share their ideas and advancements, he says, so the patent process was introduced to make sure people would keep sharing new information.
This was one of many interesting tidbits Leininger shared at a recent Tech Park Academy session at the Louisiana Technology Park. Read on for his advice on navigating the patent application process.
Evaluate Your Idea
You have a great idea and now you want to protect it. What should you do? Your first step, Leininger says, is to see whether a patent is even feasible. Begin by asking yourself some questions.
Is my idea reasonable? Your idea doesn’t have to actually be built or coded in order to be patented. It can still be theoretical, but it needs to be something that could conceivably work one day. Right now, for example, there are patents for underwater energy harvesting volcanoes, which don’t yet exist but are patented in case they ever happen, Leininger says. But a patent for something like harvesting moon energy to power a time machine is not reasonable and would not be granted.
Is it useful? The idea has to be not just reasonable but useful. You can’t patent a stick, for example, unless you can show a new and unique purpose for its use.
Is it legal? You can’t patent any ideas that are against the law or public policy, and you can’t patent anything used solely for deception.
Understand the Types of Patents
If your idea is reasonable, useful and legal, continue your research to decide which of three general patent types is right for you.
If your idea is a new shape, you need a design patent. With a water bottle, for example, you can patent a new shape even though you haven’t altered the purpose or basic principles of a bottle. These patents are less expensive and easier to get, but they have a limited scope of what they cover, Leininger says.
If you’re cross-breeding plants, you can get a plant patent.
Everything else falls under a utility patent. This covers machines, processes, business methods, computers and software, and even composition of matter, Leininger says. This is what most people think of when they think of patents.
Watch Out for Prior Art
Prior art is any information already out in the public sphere relating to an idea.
It includes whether the idea is already patented in the U.S. or other countries. It also includes any information you’ve put out in the world, intentionally or inadvertently, Leininger says, such as through pitches or other presentations.
If you told anyone enough about the idea that they could replicate it on their own, you can file a patent application within one year and be covered. If that year has passed, the idea is no longer patentable in the U.S. Other countries have even stricter policies than this. Most people thinking about patents would know not to reveal too much about their idea to others who may steal it, but remember, this also includes any pitches you made to seek seed capital or manufacturing assistance. Even sharing the idea with someone whose help you need can start a clock that you need to monitor, Leininger says.