I have the utmost respect for inventors. Their ability to produce original products or ideas really gets me. These are the people who change our lives for the better. Take Steve Jobs. His name is attached to more than 300 patents, many on products we use daily (I’m typing on one right now, in fact). And then there is Joseph Pedott—admittedly less known than Jobs, but still influential. Pedott helped to invent The Clapper, which in my opinion is one of the best products ever (my family uses it to switch on Christmas lights to this day) and—for those of you who were around during the 80s—I guarantee that you can still sing the product’s catchy TV jingle.
Now consider the thoughts that circulate in your brain on a daily basis. I am willing to bet that, as a small business owner, you have an idea for an invention buried deep under your pile of to-dos and don’t-have-time-fors. My advice: Pay attention to those fleeting thoughts; fleshed out, they could have the potential to become the next generation laptop or sound-sensitive lighting device.
While the idea of owning a patent might get your blood pumping, the process of acquiring one isn’t easy. Here are some common mistakes to avoid.
Not documenting your process
Back in 2005, Lara Merriam-Smith was a teacher with a wardrobe problem. Every day as she stood in front of her students, her tank top straps would fall off her shoulders and down her arms. Thinking that there must be a better way to wear her favorite tops, she came up with the idea for Bra Barrette, a decorative clip that could be worn on the outside of clothing and hold straps in place.
She knew a patent was in her future, but she also knew that the process was a tricky. To cover her butt in the research and manufacturing phase, she kept an inventor’s log.
“I documented everything I did—the process, milestones, when I started, everything; It gave me the proof I would need in case I had to go into litigation later,” she says.
Not hiring a patent attorney
Yes, this may seem unnecessary, especially for the fact that there is a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that allows you to just apply for your patent online. But as Mark C. Robinson, inventor of a dog wheelchair called Walkin Wheels, says, hiring an attorney is absolutely vital.
“I’m a do-it-yourself kind of guy and I really didn’t want to hire a lawyer, so I researched everything I could on patents but soon realized that the risk involved in doing it wrong was so great that I just couldn’t do it on my own,” he says.
What’s the risk?
“If a patent isn’t done correctly, two years from now someone could copy my product and I would have no recourse,” says Robinson.
Patrick Richards, attorney at Richards Patent Law in Chicago, validates Robinson’s statement.
“The patent process is possible to do on your own, but you are more likely to shoot yourself in the foot; the process is complex—especially the part where you describe your patent; writing a patent application is a skill and something worthy of hiring a professional to do for you,” he says.
Not choosing the right patent attorney
Think of your patent attorney as the keeper of your most lucrative secret. You want to hire someone you can trust. When Robinson went looking for an attorney, he tapped into his professional network for a recommendation.
“I didn’t want to go through the Yellow Pages because there are so many horror stores about patent attorneys; I ended up getting connected with my attorney through a close friend, and I’m very happy with how it turned out,” he says.
What if you don’t know any inventors who can dispense recommendations?
“Check out a business forum like BNI International or inventor forums; if you look for local businesspeople that have patents, you will find them,” he says.
Here’s a tip: Request a free consultation with your patent attorney before signing anything.
“It is unfair to expect the potential client to know if he needs your services and it is important for inventors to see how working with the attorney will benefit them before diving in,” says Richards.
Not filing in time
Acquiring a patent can take a lot of time (years) and money (as in hundreds of thousands), so why not just wait until you’ve sold enough units to pay for the process?
“You only have one year from the first time the invention is publicly disclosed [i.e. sold] to file a patent application; if as a business owner you launched a product within the last year, you need to talk to a patent attorney right away to make sure it is protected,” says Richards.
Not starting with the end in mind
Before filing that application, sit down and plot out the trajectory of your product, recommends Bra Barrette's Merriam-Smith.
"Think about your ultimate goal for the product. Will you sell it at trade shows? Retail shows? Consider the scale of what you anticipate it being years from now," she says. "This will help you determine when to start the process and if you should start it at all."