You've just invented the greatest product known to mankind—or at least you think so. And you know that you must quickly protect this brilliant idea with a patent because someone will surely steal it if you don't, right?
Maybe not. For lone inventors, patenting may not be necessary at every step of the inventing process—and maybe not at all.
"A patent can be a useful tool, but it may not be necessary. I have spent thousands of dollars on quality patents and had my products knocked off anyway," said Tamara Monosoff, inventor and author of "The Mom Inventors Handbook."
Monosoff breaks down the patent debate into three key questions for inventors as they weigh the benefits of a patent vs. the costs—something all inventors need to do early in the product development process.
1. Is a provisional patent application plenty?
A provisional patent application is like an invention placeholder—it gives you 12 months to file a full patent, known in the inventing jargon as a utility patent. The utility patent reverts to the date of your provisional patent application.
There's an economic benefit to this approach—you can delay the cost of a utility application and continue with product development before you actually file. Fees associated with filing a provisional patent application can start at as little as $65, though there can be multiple fees in the filing process.
A full utility patent can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the applicant, the nature of the invention (apparatus, biotech, electrical, design, plant) and the process hiccups that can occur along the way as the patent application is examined, said James Crowne, deputy executive director of legal affairs for the American Intellectual Property Law Association. He added that the applicant does have the chance to make corrections to the filing during the examination process, but there are costs incurred every time that is necessary.
Another benefit of the provisional application is that your product details are not public for the 12-month period, so potential competitors can't figure out how to design around your patent.
"It's a powerful time because no one knows the specifics of what you submitted for patent, and once you file a provisional application, you can also label your invention as 'patent pending,' which in itself can be a deterrent to a would-be knockoff," Monosoff said.