Have a Brilliant Idea? Ten Things to Know About Inventions

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Eureka! You just came up with the most dazzling idea for a new product or service. Not only that, you’ve figured out some extraordinarily clever packaging and a catchy name as well. Now what?

1. Who’s going to buy it? Having a great idea is exciting, but it’s not enough. The single most important factor in commercializing any idea is its marketability. Before thinking about patents, lawyers, or licensing, do some research on potential purchasers of your product and how to reach them.

2. No reservations. You cannot reserve a patent at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). However, you can file a provisional patent application (PPA) that will give you "patent-pending" status and preserve your place in line at the USPTO for at least one year.

3. Keep it secret. You don’t need to operate like Fort Knox, but you should use reasonable methods of secrecy to protect your idea, such as nondisclosure agreements and labeling material “confidential.”

4. Patent protection ≠ money. Half of u.s. patent applications are not granted. Of the ones that are, fewer then 3% are turned into commercial products.

5. No trade, no trademark. You cannot obtain federal trademark or service mark registration until you offer the product or service for sale. However, you can reserve a trademark if you genuinely intend to use it within a certain period of time.

6. Search and (with luck) you will not find. Just because you’ve never seen it in a store, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been invented. You can’t get a patent if someone had the same idea before you and applied for a patent already. Search the patent office records at www.uspto.gov and, if necessary, hire a professional patent searcher.

7. Careful what you wish for. Getting a patent, trademark, or copyright doesn’t guarantee you anything except the right to go after people who rip off your idea. You still have to chase down infringers, and that means legal fees and hassles.

8. Is it feasible? Anyone interested in licensing your product idea is going to ask what it will cost to manufacture. If the cost per unit is higher than competing products, you’re unlikely to make a deal—no matter how great your idea.

9. Watch out for deductions. If you do enter into a licensing deal, pay attention to royalties, but also watch out for a long list of deductions that the licensing manufacturer will make before calculating your royalties.

10. It’s not about one great idea. Successful inventors always come up with many ideas. That's why they’re successful. If your first great idea isn’t marketable, don’t fret ... there are more where that came from.

Why didn’t I think of that? Yes, the USPTO has granted patents for:

  • a reservation system for using airplane restrooms (US 6,329,919)
  • a wind-assisted bicycle (US 6,932,368)
  • a vest with tubing so your hamster can crawl around in your clothing (US 5,901,666)
  • a chewable toothbrush (US 6,769,828)
  • a kissing shield (US 6,789,799)
  • a plow that can also be used as a gun (US 35,600)
  • a fireplace that includes a waterfall (US 6,901,925)
  • a device that freezes dog poop (US 6,883,462) (Did you ever see the movie Envy? The product that makes its inventor rich is “Vapoorize.”)
  • a combination lawn/garden ornament and cremation container (US 6,854,165)

This article was excerpted from Nolo's Little Legal Companion. You can get a free copy by signing up for one of Nolo's Legal Newsletters.

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