Patent Basics for Small Businesses

By on September 30, 2014
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Are you a small business owner? Do you have a invention or design that is unique to your business? Have you thought about how to protect your intellectual property so that no one takes your idea and claims it for their own? If you haven’t, you should look into filing a patent, especially if you have already talked about your invention publicly or displayed it at a trade show. In this day and age, new businesses pop up every day. You must act quickly to protect your innovative ideas.

What is a Patent?

Issued by the United States Patent Office (USPTO), a patent is an intellectual property right that prevents others from making, selling, or using your invention in the United States. The life of a patent is typically 14 to 20 years. For this duration, you can prevent others from making, selling, or using your invention without your permission.

Types of Patents

There are three types of patents available: design patents, plant patents, and utility patents. Which type you apply for depends on the nature of your idea.

Design Patents

Design patents protect your invention’s original or ornamental design. Typically easier to file, design patents are more accepted by the USPTO than other types. However, because designs can be modified in many different ways, the protection isn’t as effective, and someone who modifies your design could be protected from patent infringement. The life of a design patent is 14 years.

Plant Patents

Plant patents protect new, distinct varieties of plants that are either discovered or invented. Plant patents prevent anyone but the owner from making, selling, or using that particular variety for up to 20 years.

Utility Patents

Utility patents protect your invention’s function or process, or any new improvement to the function or process. Typically more expensive and difficult to obtain, utility patents require you to explain how your invention is used and usually involves the assistance of a patent lawyer. The life of a utility patent is 20 years, and throughout that duration, anyone trying to make a similar product must avoid all of the claims you made in your filing.

When filing for patents, determine whether you should apply for a design patent, utility patent, or both, as most new inventions will need the protection of both.

Provisional Patent Applications

While you’re shopping your invention around to manufacturers, it’s a good idea to file a provisional patent application (PPA) to ensure no one steals your idea. Filing a PPA gives you patent pending status for up to 12 months from the filing date. If you file for your official patent during that time, you can use your PPA application to prove your invention came before others, if necessary. Keep in mind that PPAs do not result in patents. You still need to file separately for your official patent.

Who Can File?

If you created your invention, you must file the application. If you created your invention with a friend or coworker, both of you are required by law to file as joint inventors. Legally, you cannot file a patent for an invention that is not yours; doing so can result in criminal penalties and invalidation of the patent.

Conducting a Patent Search

Before you file for a patent, conduct a search to ensure your invention has not already been patented. You can search for patents a few different ways. The cheapest, most convenient way is to search online at www.uspto.gov or www.google.com/patents. These sites do not charge. There are also fee-based companies, such as Delphion, Thompson-Rueters Patent Web, PatentMax, and PatBase that offer online searching with enhanced features.

If you do not have internet access, you can hire a patent researcher to conduct a search for you. Alternatively, you can take trip to your state’s Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries and search trade journals.

Filing a Patent

You don’t necessarily need a lawyer to file a patent application, although, it’s never a bad idea if you can afford a patent lawyer who knows all the ins and outs. If you decide to file on your own, here’s what the USPTO expects from you, and you can learn more at www.uspto.gov.

  • Keep excellent records of your invention. Document how you came up with your idea, your processes, procedures, and any modifications you make. Include diagrams and prototypes. Be sure to sign and date each entry in front of two witnesses, who must also sign and date each entry.
  • Ensure your invention qualifies for patent protection. In order to get your application approved, you must show how your invention works. It must function differently from all other inventions like it. Also, you cannot sell your invention to any companies before you apply for your patent. Remember, if you’re going to shop your patent around, you can file for a PPA.
  • Do your market research. Whether or not you hire a patent lawyer, the patent process can cost you a lot of time and money. Before you decide to start your application, research the market to ensure your invention fulfills a need and is commercially viable. Otherwise, it may not be worth it.

Just because you have determined you can patent and market your design or invention, that doesn’t mean it’s always the best route to go. You may decide you’re better off keeping your design a trade secret. In some industries, like technology, business moves so fast a patent may not be beneficial. That’s for you to decide, as patenting is certainly a business decision and investment.

Do your research and hire a good patent attorney if you are unsure how to proceed. They can help you determine if initiating the patent process is right for you and your small business.

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About Toni Banks

Contributing writer for FSN - As a professional writer for the Legal, Finance, and Technology industries, Toni understands there is an overwhelming amount of information available to you and wading through confusing terminology and difficult concepts can be difficult. Her primary aim is to offer focused, clearly-written information on current topics that resonate with her readers. Find Toni on !

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