What is a patent?
A patent is commonly defined as an exclusive right to use or commercially exploit an invention for a period of 20 years.
This sounds impressive, but there is a lot more to the story.
To patent or not to patent… that is often the question.
In return for disclosing the innermost secrets of your invention, a governmental body may grant a limited right to its exclusive use. After 18 months from your filing date, all your secrets, as disclosed in a patent, are laid open to the public. After 20 years, anyone can use your invention. This is why some inventors choose not to patent and to keep their inventions secret. Common examples of secrecy are the formula for a popular soft drink or the recipe for a famous fried chicken.
The patenting process is time consuming and expensive. You really need to assess, very carefully, whether you have something commercially viable before starting the process of spending several thousand dollars over a protracted period in the hope of obtaining the protection a patent can afford. There are too many examples of patents that have virtually no value as the claims are unenforceable or provide so narrow a scope of protection that it is easy to produce a similar product or process without infringing them.
Some questions to ask:
- What is the real advantage of the invention?
- Is it quantifiable?
- What other solutions currently exist or might be identified as substitutes for your innovation?
- What expired or still-in-force patents or patent applications exist that relate to the invention and might affect the scope of protection that can be obtained?
- Do you have a viable game plan for commercial exploitation?
Some Patent Mechanics
A patent is a deed to your idea and your deed is only as valuable as the commercial value of your idea combined with the quality and detail of the disclosure and the degree to which the wording of your claims builds a protective fence around the invention.
A patent consists of essentially two key parts:
Description of the Preferred Embodiment: This consists of a detailed description of your product or process and includes drawings that clearly explain the invention and include its features and benefits. It must clearly explain the unique, key elements that comprise your invention, and must enable a skilled technical person to recreate it. This description forms the basis for the claims which will define the invention you will own for the duration of the patent.
Claims: Once you have prepared your description of the preferred embodiment, the next step is to decide what the unique features are that make your product or process better than others already in existence and to develop your claims. Claims are phrases which concisely describe the key features of your invention, those you wish to own and to which your patent will grant you the exclusive right to exploit commercially. Your claims require careful crafting as they form the intellectual property deed known as a patent. If these claims are poorly drafted, ambiguous, or too narrow, the deed will be of little value, as others will be able to make a similar product or process with only minor changes. Well-worded claims ensure a long-term opportunity for an inventor to benefit from his/her idea.