How to decide whether or not to patent an idea

Haydn Evans
- Leadership - Aug 10, 2017

Protecting innovation is crucial for business competitive advantage, to secure future investment and ultimately to drive growth – but many businesses struggle to understand how to protect ideas and which ideas to protect.

Protecting ideas

Applying for and obtaining a patent is often the best business decision an inventor makes. A patent gives an inventor the legal right to stop others from copying, manufacturing, selling or importing their invention without permission for up to 20 years. Holding exclusive rights to an invention helps reward innovation, because a patent can also be licensed to others – generating revenues. Some businesses exist solely to collect the royalties from a licensed patent portfolio - perhaps in combination with registered designs and trademarks.

IP is also playing an increasingly significant role in mergers and acquisitions.  For example, Google acquired Motorola for $12.5 billion before selling the company to Lenovo (minus its valuable IP in smartphone technology) for $2.9 billion. 

It is important to consider the protection of ideas with patents, but for the uninitiated the patent application process can be daunting and complex.

Prepare for protection

Before obtaining a patent, an inventor needs to consider whether their invention qualifies for protection and - to complete the filing process - should be able to describe all aspects of the idea. A patent needs to fully describe the invention to the level that the invention could be repeated by someone with the appropriate skills.

Inventors should record every step of the invention process, both describing and drawing diagrams of every aspect and modification of the invention, and recording how the idea materialised in the first place.  Depending on the invention type, it may also be worthwhile building and testing a prototype before filing for a patent. By documenting these efforts and signing and dating each entry, inventors will be armed with the most accurate information for a patent application.

Find the commercial potential

Applying for a patent is ultimately a business decision - and there can be significant costs associated with a filing. Even without a patent attorney - or the use of professionally prepared patent drawings - it can cost approximately $1,500 in fees to file and obtain a patent from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Before investing money in intellectual property rights, inventors need to research their market and decide whether it is worth the outlay of funds.

Patent search

Inventors are likely to seek a patent search if they have an invention they think is worth protecting.  A detailed patent search can give inventors an idea about the patent landscape and identify whether an idea is truly novel.

By conducting a patent search and obtaining professional guidance from a patent attorney, inventors will be able to determine whether it makes sense to move forward and what, if any, rights could be granted.

Prepare and file

With all of the necessary information to hand, inventors can then apply for a patent with their local patent office, such as the USPTO in the United States and the IPO in the UK. Patents are territorial rights.  The rights are only applicable in the countries where patents have been granted.  Entrepreneurs should consider which countries are important to them and where they will be trading. 

At the point of filing, the idea is often described as “patent pending”. After the filing process is complete the patent offices where the filing has been made will examine the idea. This process typically takes 2-3 years but during this time you can still inform others that you have sought patent protection

The power of patents

Today entrepreneurs have so much to do to ensure competitive advantage: establish a business; analyse which markets are relevant; protect ideas; establish funding; grow internationally; and recruit the right people.  Entrepreneurs are time poor.

CEOs need to focus on establishing the viability of idea protection to their business as quickly and early as possible, generating the right partnerships to ensure protection is real and investing in ideas protection. It is crucial not to ignore IP protection – chances are IP rights will generate the largest percentage of your company’s value.

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