September 6, 2005--Already swamped by applications, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has launched an outreach program to encourage more small business owners to seek patent protection.

This month, the agency will begin offering a series of free two-day workshops to help entrepreneurs protect themselves from the "realities of piracy and counterfeiting."

In July, it launched a website focusing on the needs of small businesses. And at a conference in early August, Jon Dudas, the U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property, urged independent inventors to make patent, trademark and copyright protection a core part of their business strategy.

The initiative is part of the federal government's StopFakes! project, a broad effort to curb intellectual property theft, which costs U.S. companies some $250 billion a year and affects everything from apparel and footwear outlets to high-tech industrial goods.

Small businesses are seen as particularly vulnerable, lacking the "resources and expertise available to larger corporations", according to the patent office, which received 376,000 applications last year -- more than the total of all applications combined over the last 40 years.

But where large corporations take out hundreds of patents at once, small businesses often file less than a dozen, if any.

Daniel McDonald, a partner at Merchant & Gould, said that's because most small business owners see patents as "expensive to get and expensive to enforce, and unpredictable in their value."

Getting a patent on file can take an out-of-pocket investment of as much as $10,000, said Brad Hulbert of McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff. Worse, the cost of a patent lawsuit, through trial, can run well over $1 million. And even then, he added, "on any one patent the general rule of thumb is about half the time the patent will be found invalid or not infringed." That's why companies with bigger portfolios, like IBM, often assert five or more patents at once.

But with patent litigation becoming more commonplace in every industry, John Rabena, a partner at Sughrue Mion, said companies without them were "sitting ducks."

"Building a reasonable portfolio that covers your core technologies can keep competitors at bay. Aggressive competitors may be less likely to assert patents against a company that could strike back," he said.

Dennis Crouch, a lawyer and author of the blog Patently-Obvious, said the patent office program for small businesses was "primarily informational."

"Small businesses rarely have in-house expertise in stopping counterfeiting," he said: "This initiative has the purpose of supplying those small businesses with the tools they need to protect their rights."

In a study earlier this year, the USPTO found a full quarter of small businesses owners were unaware that their U.S. patent or trademark offered no protection outside the country.

The workshops begin September 12 in Austin, TX, before heading across the country.