Patenting an invention idea
Patenting is by far the most misunderstood aspect of invention. Patenting an invention is not easy, quick or cheap. Nor is a patent anywhere near as strong as you might think. And it isn’t necessarily the best way to protect an idea or product.
A patent is not a government-backed insurance policy, as so many inventors think. If you own a patent and someone infringes it, you are entirely on your own, both legally and financially. Any action you take against the infringer is at your own cost and risk. If the infringer has more money than you, your chances of coming out on top may be slim. In the UK, a typical patent court case costs £150-750,000. In the USA it’s something like $2m.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t patent your invention in the right circumstances. But it does mean that you should do so only when you know exactly what you’re doing and exactly why you’re doing it.
To learn more about patenting and intellectual property rights, read our inventors’ book A Better Mousetrap and our free Patenting Your Invention: the Ugly Truth, which you can read online or download as a PDF.
And impartial guidance on protecting your invention idea is included in our invention services.
Should you patent your invention or not?
Patenting is such a complex area that what follows can only be very general guidance.
There are two broad commercial reasons for applying for a patent:
- The invention is a significant improvement in technology, worth a lot of money to whoever uses it commercially. That’s a good reason for patenting, but it’s a category that many otherwise commercially worthwhile inventions don’t fall into.
- The invention won’t attract investment without a patent, because many investors are brainwashed into believing that a patent is essential. That’s a less good reason for patenting, but many more inventions fall into this category than into the first.
When deciding whether to patent your invention, always work backwards from the money you stand to make. Don’t patent your invention until you’ve researched:
(a) your likely income from product sales or royalties, and
(b) the cost of patenting including renewals, foreign filings, translations, patent attorney fees.
Then do the maths: basically, a minus b.
Be reasonably happy to go ahead with patenting only if a is a much bigger figure than b. Many perfectly good inventions will fail that test, but never fear. Other forms of IP protection may be just as effective and a lot cheaper. (Ask us for advice!)
If a minus b is too close to zero for comfort, consider also the following:
- How high is the risk that others will copy the invention? Or how much will it matter if they do? Copying needn’t be the end of the world, and there may be more effective ways of dealing with it in the market-place than in a patent court.
- Will most of your income come from licensing your IP? If so, a patent may be necessary because it’s all you’ve got to trade. But if the cost of maintaining your patent comes close to wiping out your net income, something needs to change!
- Could you get by with a patent in just one or two key markets? For example, the UK and USA? That may be much more affordable and realistic than going for expensive cover in all potential markets.
- Could you use the patent system strategically? For example, by filing an application to get ‘patent pending’ status, then withdrawing it later? (Big companies work the system to their advantage, so why shouldn’t you?)
In short: don’t let patents rule you. What you need most is an intellectual property strategy that covers all aspects of your invention. A patent may or may not be a useful component of that strategy.