To patent or not to patent? That is a question facing many start-up entrepreneurs, and for those contemplating the decision, a few words of caution are in order.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reports that the number of filings has been steadily increasing by about 6% each year since 1985, with 23% of patents and trademarks awarded to independent inventors. That market growth has attracted a spate of unscrupulous "invention marketing firms," eager to wrangle a buck from unsuspecting inventors. For the past few years the government has been cracking down on those predators, but patent lawyers say they haven't yet noticed a decrease in numbers.

"When someone says, 'That's the greatest idea I've ever seen,' watch your wallet," warns Donald Byers, chief operating officer of Plymouth Pharmaceuticals, a Tulsa, Okla., start-up. "There's a whole mountain of an industry waiting to take advantage of people with ideas."

Byers should know. His employer has spent the past four years in research and development, amassing 22 international patents on two of five products, with more pending. But securing them wasn't easy, he says. "Our founder flushed $70,000 down the toilet by not knowing anything about patents and going to the wrong sources for help."

To inventors requesting help, Byers recommends Thomas Mosley's book, Marketing Your Invention (Upstart Publishing, 800-235-8866, $19.95). "It gives you a clear perspective of what you're up against in this process," he says.

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Some Helpful Terms of the Trade
· Utility patent:
Seventeen years of coverage for an apparatus or function only, not for a design. Costs at least $5,000 to file, with additional payments due in subsequent years.

· Design patent: Fourteen-year protection on nonfunctional designs only. Commonly used by car manufacturers and clothing designers. Costs about $1,000 to file and protects holder against others who go into production with the same design after the original patent was filed.

· Trademark and trade dress: Registers for 10 years the appearance of a product, like the distinctive Coca-Cola bottle or the orange Howard Johnson's roof. Can be renewed indefinitely, as long as product is in continuous use. Costs about $750 for a lawyer to file papers with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Packaging can be trademarked. Guidelines on do-it-yourself trademarking are available. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office publishes a booklet titled Basic Facts About Registering a Trademark, available at no charge by calling 703-308-HELP.

· Copyright: Designed to protect original works against intentional plagiarism for 75 to 100 years. Copyrighted software, for example, is protected against being stolen and sold by a competitor but not against similar software that was created independently. Writers and artists frequently "perfect the copyright" on their works by marking them with the © trademark and mailing a sample, a form, and a $20 filing fee to the Library of Congress. (For more information call 202-707-3000.)

-- Phaedra Hise

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