While some ideas are singular instances of genius, others stem from existing products. Consider a specialized tool like the can-opener that developed from a string of other innovations. First came the clever idea to can soup, followed by an inventive way to preserve it. This paved the way for a tin-can machinist and eventually, a convenient tool for actually opening the can. In the inventions and patents world, business compliments business. Keep in mind that one idea can spawn several inventions, each hoping to employ and satisfy the masses. Thomas Edison, father of the phonograph and the light bulb, refused to invent anything that he couldn’t sell. “Its sale is proof of utility,” he said, “and utility is success.”
According to the USPTO you can obtain a utility patent for a “new and useful” process, machine, article of manufacture, composition of matter or an improvement. A design patent is for inventors of “new, original and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.” The patent, or the rights of discovery, allows you to prevent others from making, selling, using or importing your invention for a limited and paid amount of time. Whether or not your invention is actually legal to make or sell may be up to specific regulatory boards, like the Food and Drug Administration. When filling out the patent application, the more specific you can be about your particular invention the better. To issue a patent safe from duplication, the patent office should be able to understand exactly what the idea is and how it functions.
Expect to pay an application fee of $300 for a utility patent or $200 for a design patent. After an invention is accepted, the patent lasts for about 20 years and requires maintenance fees every 3.5, 7.5 and 11.5 years from the date issued. These can be quite hefty and increase from $900 in the third year to $2,300 in the seventh, reaching $3,800 in the eleventh. However, if you’re still selling the product in 11 years, three grand probably won’t sound like so much.
Before you toss aside your inventive dreams, the USPTO lessens the financial burden for independent inventors, small businesses and nonprofit organizations with a small entity status — cutting all of the normal fees in half. Obtaining and managing a patent can be complicated. The USPTO (uspto.gov) suggests professional help, from either agents or attorneys.
Budding inventors should not despair over the expense of obtaining a patent. With 300,000 plus applications filed per year there will be an opportunity for funding exploration while the patent is reviewed. Take the time to interview and research ideas with others around you, or others interested in its use. Keep your eyes open for scholarships or workshops. College students can apply to compete in the Collegiate Inventors Competition and potentially win money towards their invention. There are also other large competitions like the Modern Marvels Invent Now Challenge that awards a $25,000 grant toward the winning inventor’s proposal. Visit invent.org for more competition information.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then utility is the lifeline of a successful patent. It’s going to have to start paying for itself someday, so we suggest looking for outside help in the meantime and taking it one thought at a time.