Mark Twain said there is no such thing as a new idea. We merely build on existing ideas, tweaking them to meet the needs of today's consumer market. Though this may be true, if a new idea is too similar to one that has been either trademarked or patented, your business may be dead in the water before it even starts.
Fortunately, the Internet has tools that can help you learn whether an idea has already been done. Even when you find that a product or service already exists, you shouldn't assume that you should stay away from that idea altogether. You can use these tools to learn as much as possible about a business's protected concepts and designs, and tweak your product to be much different when you file your own paperwork.
The first step entrepreneurs generally take when they come up with a great idea is to conduct a simple Google search. Though this won't show you every idea that has been protected, it will help you see the consumer market for your creation. If someone else is successfully serving consumers in your target demographic with the same product, you will need to find a unique-enough way to provide that service so customers will choose you over your already-established competitor.
Interestingly, Google itself is an example of a company with an idea that had already been done. Numerous search engines existed when Google came on the scene. The company delivered a simple, straightforward approach to searching the Web that soon found its way onto almost every computer in the world. The difference between Google and search engines such as Lycos and Infoseek was that Google's results were recognized as uncannily accurate. Google's approach to search engines was completely different from its competitors', allowing it to challenge a market that was already oversaturated. Of course, now there are many that want to improve upon what Google is offering. The cycle may continue long into the future.
Patent and Trademark Search
The process of searching the United States Patent and Trademark Office isn't as simple as typing a few words into a search box. Patents go by "marks," with unique items detailed in the system to distinguish them from others. Complicating matters even more is the fact that a business's rights to a mark can be established merely by that business using that mark. This means that an item just like yours may already be protected without being part of the USPTO database.
Some businesses have found it worthwhile to work directly with an attorney who specializes in patents and trademarks. Though this will cost your business attorneys' fees, it will allow you to turn the process over to an expert. Your attorney can not only conduct a thorough search to determine if a trademark exists, but he or she can also file the paperwork necessary to get your idea protected.
Protect Your Idea
Once you've determined you're free and clear to start your business, it's time to protect yourself. Though the process of securing a patent can be costly, the USPTO offers a solution called a provisional patent to give startups a chance to get started. This patent grants a business a 12-month period of protection as it puts its idea in motion. Within that year, a nonprovisional application must be filed. Once a provisional patent has been filed, a business can then use the words patent pending in print materials and websites in which its product or service is mentioned.
A provisional patent doesn't completely protect a business, however. It's important that a business's invention be as developed as possible before the application is filed, with each element of the creation described in explicit detail. If a patent filing is vague, another party could argue that the idea wasn't fully fleshed out at the time the patent was filed. If another business comes along with an idea that is clear and ready to go to market, the courts could rule in favor of that business despite the fact that a provisional patent on that idea had already been filed.
Because concepts can appear so similar on the surface, businesses should carefully document as much of the development process as possible. Once a provisional patent has been filed, a business will have far more legal protection in the event of legal action than if no documentation existed.