As we near the end of the year, it's a good time to review the projects your organization is working on. Specifically, consider whether any involve patentable inventions. If you have an invention-- for example a novel technology or product--for which you might be able to earn licensing money or for which you want exclusive rights, you might want to file a patent.
Though the filing process is long and expensive, it doesn't need to be mysterious or difficult.
Here are some surprising --and avoidable--mistakes to keep you on track and make your application worth the time and money.
1. You don't have anything to patent
A patent idea is required to be "useful, novel, and non-obvious." While these terms might seems subjective, they are specifically defined for patent law. "Useful" means that your invention has a meaningful purpose. "Novel" means that nobody is using your invention and that it hasn't been written about. "Non-obvious" means that someone in your field wouldn't think to make improvements or changes that would result in your invention. "Sometimes people think their idea is patentable but there's nothing novel about it (and vice versa)," advised a former colleague, who has over twenty filed patents.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's publishes a set of examination rules to better define these seemingly subjective requirements of a novel invention. Use these rules as a checklist to determine whether you do (or don't) have a patent-worthy invention.
2. You rely too much on Google
Your invention is patentable when you are the first person or group in the country or world to come up with it. It may seem natural, then, that you should confirm that you are in fact the sole parent of an idea and that someone else hasn't previously filed a patent for the invention. You might Google it to see if it already exists. This is a problem for several reasons. First, the internet is not a conclusive database of accepted patents. It's possible that some applications have been abandoned. Second, it may not be obvious whether an existing patent that relates to your invention actually covers your invention. Third, as the inventor, you want to remain unbiased. When you search and read patents that are related to your invention, you may subconsciously be influenced by what you read, thus risking the uniqueness of your description of your invention.
Instead, focus on creating the best description of your invention, and, after a cursory search, rely on a professional to get more deep in the weeds of the search.
3. You focus on the wrong details
As businesspeople and consumers, we are most excited by the ways in which innovation changes lives. When describing your product or service to people, you might give examples of why its useful and the problem it solves. In most cases, you don't get into the specifics of the proprietary technology that powers your product or the hardware that makes it all possible. Most of the time, the magic is in keeping all the complexity a secret. But when it comes to a patent application, the rules are different. You don't need to be as user-centered. Instead, you need to provide, with as much detail as possible, an explanation around the functionality of your invention. It is the actual invention, not the way that it is applied, that is patentable. For example, if you invent a new mug, you want to describe the mug --its shape and materials--not the fact that it can hold coffee.
What is the design of the machinery? How does the technology work? Get specific about these aspects of your invention.
4. You get too specific, too soon
When describing your work to key stakeholders like clients or investors, it's important to provide specifics around your offer. For example what the experience looks and feels like, specific contexts in which it can be used, who your target customer is, and who it isn't. While specifics are important in a patent application, first start with a general description. This gives your patent application a broad scope rather than pigeon-holing you into a description that is too specific. For example, if you invented a new aerodynamic fabric with which you are designing running shorts, patenting "aerodynamic running shorts," would not cover future uses of your fabric, for example shirts or jackets. Your patent should be for the aerodynamic fabric, with possible uses for it, for example, running shorts.
Start with a general description of your invention, then provide examples of the ways in which it might be used.
5. You aren't timely with your submission
Before launching your product to the public, you will likely spend time testing its functionality and business model while gathering feedback from testers. This is a necessary step in the innovation process. But don't wait until you're ready to start selling before thinking about your patent application. A patent application is actually highly time-sensitive. You are only granted one year after your invention is first publicly disclosed to file a patent application, after which your idea is not protected. As explained by my former colleague, "public disclosure basically includes things like putting your idea or product on your website, talking about it at trade shows, or in advertising." If your patent is important, it may make sense to keep your invention a secret.
Once you've defined your invention, work in parallel to file your application.
The process of filing a patent application is both temporally and financially expensive and it may not always make sense to do. But if and when you do decide to file, be sure to avoid common errors to increase the chances of your invention being accepted. After all (and luckily), these tips aren't patented.
Disclaimer: While I have experience in filing patents and have received input from other experienced filers, I am not a patent lawyer. I recommend working with a professional once you are in the process.