Patenting an invention – good or bad idea?

This deserves a page of its own because patenting is by far the most misunderstood aspect of invention. For a much longer and more frothing at the mouth read, see our wiki Patenting your invention: the ugly truth

Patenting an invention is not easy, quick or cheap. Nor does a patent actually protect anything unless its owner has very deep pockets.

Major companies such as Apple and Google can afford to patent everything in sight. Most private individuals can’t, so immediately there’s a big divide – patenting benefits some much more than others.

A patent is not a form of insurance. If someone infringes your patent you are entirely on your own, both legally and financially.

Any action you take against an infringer is at your own cost and risk, and the costs can be frightening. A UK patent court case can easily cost £1m per side; in the USA it’s much more. The loser may have to pay both sides’ costs.

To learn more about how to protect an invention read our inventors’ book A Better Mousetrap and our (very long) wiki Patenting your invention: the ugly truth.

Our invention services also include impartial guidance on protecting your invention or idea.

Should you patent your invention?

Patenting is so complex that what follows can only be very general guidance.

Two common reasons for applying for a patent are:

•   The invention is recognised as a significant improvement in technology or performance, worth a lot of money and market share to whoever uses it commercially. Such inventions are rare.

•   The invention won’t attract investment without at least a patent application in at least one major market. Many investors are brainwashed into believing that a patent is essential. If they’re prepared to fund all the costs, fine. If not, maybe find less blinkered investors.

When deciding whether to apply for a patent always work backwards from the money you stand to make from your invention. Not sales figures, percentages, prestige or anything else that isn’t actual money. Research:

(a)   Your likely annual income from product sales or royalties, and

(b)   Your annual cost of patenting including renewals, foreign filings, translations, patent attorney fees etc.

Consider applying for a patent only if (a) is much bigger than (b).

If still in doubt, ask more questions:

•   If someone copied your idea, how much use would your patent be? In some countries it can be difficult even to identify infringers, let alone chase them through their own legal system. Or a big company can just say ’OK, take us to court then’ – knowing you can’t afford to.

•   How likely is it that anyone will want to copy your invention? Or how much will it matter if they do? Copying needn’t be the end of the world, and it may be more effective to deal with it in the market-place than in a patent court.

•   Will most of your income come from licensing? If so, a patent may be all you’ve got to trade, so it had better earn its keep.

•   Could you get by with a patent in just one or two key markets? For example, the UK and USA? That may be more affordable but you still have to pay to enforce your own patent.

•   Could you use the patent system craftily? For example, file an application to get useful ‘patent pending’ status, then withdraw it before the serious costs kick in. It’s allowed, so why not?

In short: don’t think a patent is necessary. Learn how all forms of intellectual property work, because what’s most important is an IP strategy that protects all valuable aspects of your invention. A patent may or may not be a useful part of that strategy.