How to Get a Patent for Your Big Idea in 7 Steps

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If you think you have a moneymaking idea, read here to find out how to patent it and keep it safe from potential thieves.

You’d think we’d be at a point where there’s nothing left to be invented. And yet, there were 302,962 patents granted in 2013.

Maybe you’ve had your own idea rattling around in your brain. To ensure you have exclusive rights to your big idea for 20 years, you’ll need to get a patent. However, that’s not as simple as sending your scribbles to the patent office along with a check. Instead, the patent application process can be long, involved and expensive.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a Web page devoted to the patent process, but unless you speak government, it can be hard to wade through. We’ve broken it down and simplified the steps for you.

Keep reading for that breakdown, but first, watch this video from Money Talks News finance expert Stacy Johnson.

Step 1: Know your options

The first step to getting a patent is something not even listed on the U.S. Patent Office page. However, it could be the most important step. You need to understand your options and select the one that is going to best protect your idea at a price you can afford.

There are three ways to file for a patent:

  • DIY patent applications in which you do everything yourself.
  • Third-party software that walks you through the process for a fee.
  • Patent attorneys who charge an arm and a leg but may be worth the cost.

If you want to go the DIY route, you can still get help. There are Patent and Trademark Resources Centers in virtually every state, and the staff at these centers can provide free guidance on the patent process. However, don’t expect them to be able to answer legal questions or fill out an application on your behalf.

The next step up would be to use third-party software to walk you through the process. Think of it as TurboTax for patents. They may ask you a series of questions, fill the answers into a application template and submit it electronically on your behalf. Nolo and LegalZoom are two websites offering this service for a fee.

Finally, we come to the big guns: patent attorneys. These men and women aren’t cheap, but if you truly think your idea has big moneymaking potential, you may want to hire one. A patent attorney will make sure all the details are precise and correct, which will reduce the chances of someone else sweeping in and stealing your idea on a technicality.

While an attorney can make the patent application process easy on your end, expect to pay thousands for their services. According to the patent attorney Stacy interviewed in the video above, Scott Smiley of Concept Law, fees can range from $5,000 for a simple idea to more than $10,000 for a highly complex one.

That said, individuals meeting certain income and invention requirements may be eligible for a free attorney through the Nationwide Pro Bono Program.

For those who aren’t eligible, there are nearly 32,000 active attorneys with licenses to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and you can search online for one near you. In addition, Inc. magazine has some tips on how to pick the right professional.

If you decide to use an attorney, you can skip down to Step 6. Your lawyer should do all the rest for you. For everyone else, keep reading.

Step 2: Search existing patents

Once you decide to go the DIY route or use a fill-in-the-blanks software program, your next step is to search existing patents to see if your idea is already taken.

You can search for existing patents on the USPTO website. Note that the office has a 36-minute tutorial on how to conduct a search. That may seem like a long time to spend on a tutorial, but it may be a better option than trying to decipher the search options and results on your own.

If you don’t find a patent for your idea, you can move on to Step 3. But first, confirm that your idea is indeed patentable. You can’t patent an abstract idea, work of art, law of nature or physical phenomenon. Patentable items fall into these categories:

  • Process.
  • Machine.
  • Article of manufacture.
  • Composition of matter.
  • Improvement to any of the above.

However, your patent idea must be non-obvious and useful, which means items with no discernible purpose aren’t eligible.

Step 3: Decide whether to disclose your idea first

In the past, the first person to create an invention or come up with a patentable idea was entitled to the patent. All that was needed was for the applicant to provide documentation of the invention date, which could be as simple as jotting the idea and date in a notebook and having a witness sign the page.

That changed in 2011 with the passage of the America Invents Act. Under the new law, the patent now goes to the person who files first, unless someone else has already publicly disclosed the idea. In that case, the person who has published the idea has one year to file for a patent.

If you think someone else might jump on your idea but you’re not quite ready to file for a patent, you could publish your concept on a blog or elsewhere in the public square. Another option would be to file a provisional patent, which also gives you a year to turn your application into a final, non-provisional one.

You can read more at TechCrunch along with tips to help you decide the best route for your idea or invention.

Step 4: Complete the patent application

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