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Everything you need to know about patenting your product

You've developed a product, and now you want to make sure your idea stays safe. Here's all you need to know about the patent process
Feb 13, 2020 • 7 minute read
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Patents aren't the only way to protect your idea

When you think you’ve invented the next viral gadget, you’re bound to feel pretty excited. Ultimately, everyone wants to sell products that solve problems. If you’ve had an idea that will do that for thousands — or even millions — of consumers, your future may start to look extremely bright indeed. Yet, taking the next big thing to market can become downright stressful very quickly.
So, why is that exactly? Well, it all boils down to protection. Protecting your idea, protecting your eventual product, and protecting your hard-earned share of a very competitive market.
It’s an inconvenient truth. The better your idea or prototype, the more likely someone will steal it. Healthy competition is one of the main pillars of commerce. The reality of business, however, is that not all competitors will prioritize a healthy regard for ethics. In short, competition isn’t always fair. The fact of the matter is that some product manufacturers will stoop very low to be successful.
Patenting is one of the options available to inventors and product developers. Most people have a pretty good idea about what a patent is. Yet, obtaining a patent might not represent the ideal choice for every business or individual. In this article, we’re going to concentrate on the ins and outs of patents in the United States. We’ll look at the viability of patent applications and enforcement, and examine some alternative methods for protecting your idea.

What is a patent?

The government issues patents. In a nutshell, they allow an inventor or company to manufacture and sell a product exclusively. The period of protection can vary, but patents usually last for somewhere around twenty years. The idea is to stop others from stealing your intellectual property and making money from that.
Only with your express permission, via a licensing agreement, can another party use your patented idea, invention, or product. You can also, however, sell the patent rights to a new owner. Licensing and patent transfer are excellent options for inventors who don’t want to enter into manufacturing and marketing.
If somebody infringes on your patent, you can take legal action against them. Patents provide companies and individuals with a way to protect their property. They also create a lengthy period where only the inventor, licensee, or patent holder can benefit financially from an idea. Once the patent period ends, it becomes legal for anyone to use your invention.

Where to get a patent

Apply for a patent, and you’ll soon become familiar with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The USPTO is the gatekeeper when it comes to obtaining your golden ticket. Be warned, however, that these guys don’t take any prisoners. Neither do they award a patent lightly. To convince the USPTO your idea is patentable, you’ll need to prove that it’s original and has commercial value.
The USPTO approves four main types of patents. Utility, Design, Plant, and Software. Utility patents generally get issued for machines and products, as well as materials and some unique processes. Design patents are granted for unique, original aesthetic elements within product manufacturing. Plant patents apply to new cultivars and botanical varieties. Software patents get awarded on much the same basis as utility patents.

The patent application process: Searching, submitting and resubmitting

Before you file, it’s essential you try to make sure your idea or invention is the first of its kind. That can be an arduous task, but you’ll need to give it your best shot. If you’re not original, you won’t get a patent, and you’ll lose any associated fees.
The USPTO runs a database that you can search through. You’ll be able to see diagrams and specifications for thousands of awarded patents. The system isn’t exactly state of the art, however. It’s almost impossible to be sure you’ve covered every relevant search term. Nevertheless, being thorough is advisable. You may even want to go beyond the USPTO database and conduct further online product research.
Once you’re satisfied your idea is new, it’s time to file your application. To do so, you’ll need to lodge the appropriate forms for your patent type. You’ll also need to pay any required fees and submit any relevant drawings and data.
It’s important to remember that the USPTO will only approve original and useful ideas and products. Your application should highlight all of its innovative elements. It should convey how the device, software, or design will solve a problem.
Now is the time to become seriously patient. Don’t expect to hear back from the USPTO for a very long time. The vast majority of patent applications aren’t fast, to say the least. When you do hear back, don’t expect it to be good news either. You’ll likely have to address concerns from the USPTO in the form of denials. When this happens, it’s essential to respond methodically. Supply more detail where required. Argue the benefits and usefulness of your invention. Stick with that you’ve started and hope for a positive outcome.

The potential problems and pitfalls of patents

You may well have gathered one thing by now. The number one hurdle when applying for a patent is the process. Applications can take years and be hard to endure. Specialized knowledge is required, and it’s close to impossible to get a patent approved without enlisting professional help. Right from the get-go, searching similar patents is a minefield. Dealing with resubmissions and requests from the USPTO can also be time-consuming and frustrating.
Another problematic aspect of filing is the cost. In fact, the cash count can run so high as to be prohibitive for many inventors. Depending on the patent type and the nature of an invention, applications can run into tens of thousands of dollars. Factor in that no application is guaranteed to succeed, and the monetary risks really begin to add up.
Having enough funds to obtain a patent doesn’t necessarily mean your worries are over either. Pursuing legal action in the face of patent infringement is usually far more costly. Complex patents result in very technical, lengthy legal battles.
It’s a rather unjust reality. Often, unscrupulous product manufacturers are massive companies, with access to unbeatable legal resources. Patent infringement battles can be impossible to win. Even with the law on your side, you can find yourself priced out of getting justice.

Alternative ways to protect your brilliant idea

There are two main alternatives to applying for a full patent. The first is employing good old marketing and business strategy. The second is to file a provisional patent application (PPA), instead of a regular patent application (RPA).

Provisional patent applications and “patent pending” status

So, what is a PPA, and why can it be a desirable strategy in certain circumstances? Well, almost everyone out there will have seen the words “Patent Pending” stamped or written on a product. That’s because many inventors and companies use a PPA to get a product to market. Provisional patent applications last for one year.
It’s quicker and far cheaper to put a PPA in place than an RPA. While you can’t take legal action against a copycat product until a full patent is issued, PPAs have benefits. Entities that steal your idea face legal action if you eventually progress to an RPA. The threat of future financial losses can be enough to dissuade intellectual property thieves.
In essence, a PPA doesn’t make you bulletproof, but it can buy you some time and authority. It can gain you some perceived legal leverage and get your product on the market rapidly. As an inventor or entrepreneur, that means a chance to build a following. It gives you a shot at cornering the market and creating a brand around your idea.
Nowadays, products come and go at a rapid pace. Technological advancements happen overnight, almost every night. With a few exceptions, most products have a relatively short shelf life. PPAs can provide enough protection to exploit the lifetime of many new products, until the next big thing arrives in stores.
Going with a PPA requires some careful thought, however. If you’re dead set on an eventual RPA, then a PPA might not always be the right way to go. Obtaining a PPA initially and an RPA later will ultimately cost more – in terms of both money and time.

No patent, no problem : Establishing brand authority

As we’ve already discovered, there are many reasons a full patent application might not be for you. It’s also true that you should nearly always play to your strengths. We’ve talked much about inventors in this article. That’s perhaps a catch-it-all term, however. The fact is, many entrepreneurs will have patentable ideas. For some, aggressive marketing, good retailer relationships, and a clinical business strategy may prove more effective than a patent.
Let’s look at it this way. We’ve already learned that patents are costly to come by. They’re also incredibly expensive to defend legally – more often than not to the point of being unfeasible. Cases can take years to reach a verdict. For startups and smaller companies, not to mention individuals with good business sense, a patent may not be necessary – or useful. In such cases, being perceived as the original and best product on the market is a viable alternative to patenting.
Retailers that recognize you as the market leader will stock their shelves with your product. Concentrate on getting to market first. Work at producing the best product at the best price possible. Use copyrights, branding, trademarks. Being the best in the business can be enough to nip most copycats in the bud.

Applying for a patent if you're based outside the US

Patent law differs from country to country. However, the main principles of intellectual property protection remain the same, regardless of geography. Below are some helpful links if you’re considering filing for a patent outside the United States.
Applying in the UK
The process in Australia
EU patents
Filing for a patent in India
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