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How to Patent an Idea

If you’re an entrepreneur who has come up with a truly revolutionary product that has the potential to make you a lot of money, it’s important that you lawfully protect your idea to prevent others profiting from it. To do this, you need to know how to patent an idea.

Patenting is far from easy if you’ve never done it before and often requires the need for a specialist lawyer who knows the law and the terminology like the back of their hand. If you fail to prepare properly for your patent application, you risk losing a lot of money and time, your investors may pull out, and your competitors may begin to make money from your innovation and forward-thinking.

With this in mind, patenting is an important step for any creator who has a million-dollar idea at their fingertips, but knowing how to navigate the tricky laws of patenting can be daunting. Preparation is everything.

To help you learn more about how to patent an idea, we’ve put together the five steps involved in the process, although it should be noted that you should endeavour to seek the professional guidance of a patent lawyer if this is a route you’re going to be taking seriously.

Five key steps on how to patent an idea

Whilst patenting is a long and winding road, it can be broken into five broad steps:

1. Detailing how your idea came to be and making a note of the development progress you make at each stage.

2. Ensuring your idea can be patented under patent law before you proceed with your application.

3. Create a working prototype of your idea to go along with your application for a patent.

4. Research the costs associated with filing for a patent and learn about the various types of patents.

5. Submitting your application for a patent.

Overview of patenting

Before you commence to step number one, you must have a deep understanding of what a patent is and what it does. In simple terms, if you invent something – be it a piece of software or a new piece of technology – you may apply for a patent to prevent other retailers from selling your invention or using its technology for their own financial gain. Patents essentially give you legal protection for intellectual property.

Examples of patents include GPS technology which was patented by Roger Easton in 1974, 3D printing which was patented by Chuck Hull in 1986, and CRISPR gene editing which was patented in 2014.

It’s important to note that patents can expire, as demonstrated by Ford and their heated windscreen called Quickclear. On top of this, just because you acquire a patent for your initial idea, it doesn’t mean that you have the right to automatically begin distributing your product. You still need to obtain the relevant licences to bring your invention to market.

Different types of patents

There are several different types of patents that you can apply for depending on the type of product or technology you’ve created.

Utility patents are the most common type and relate to “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof”. In short, this means if you invent a brand new product, machine, or method of doing something and it proves to be useful, or if you wholly improve on an existing product or system, you can apply for a utility patent.

The next type of patent is a design patent which relates to how a product looks. Whilst a utility patent protects the inside of something, a design patent protects the outside of the object. Famous examples of design patents include the original Coca-Cola bottle, emojis, cars, furniture, and jewellery.

The final type of patent you’re likely to file for is a plant patent which affords you legal protection if you invent or discover “new and distinct, invented or discovered asexually reproduced plants”.

Most people will apply for utility patents and then design patents thereafter, but it’s important to decipher which patent will work best for your product or technology.

Another important thing to note is that whilst patents aim to protect intellectual property, you can’t patent an idea. A thought or idea that isn’t quantifiable or hasn’t been proven or made can’t be protected because, in theory, it doesn’t exist.

If you want to patent something, you need to have a physical example of it. For context, if you had an idea for a new vaccine to prevent the common cold, you would need to turn the idea into a reality and create the vaccine before you can apply for a patent.

Who can apply for a patent?

So, now we know what a patent is and the three main types, it’s time to explore who can apply for the patent. It’s not quite as easy as simply giving your assistant the task – there are rules surrounding who can and can’t file an application. Those who can apply for a patent are as follows:

· The inventor or person who came up with the original idea

· Someone who has been officially assigned the invention or idea by the original creator

· An administrator of the estate in the case of deceased inventors

· A co-inventor (contributing money alone does not make you a co-inventor)

If you do not fall into one of these categories, you may not apply for a patent.

How to make a patent application

With a clear understanding of what a patent is and who can get one, it’s now time to look into the actual application process. As mentioned before, how to patent an idea can generally be broken down into five broad steps, though it’s worth mentioning that the entire process can take upwards of two years, so be prepared for a long journey ahead!

1. Detail how you came up with your idea and the progress you’re making at every stage

The first step is to make detailed notes of how you came up with your idea. The more in-depth your notes are, the more you can demonstrate originality and that the idea is fully yours, and this will support you with your patent application.

It’s worth investing in good quality journals and notebooks, be they in person or online and backed up, and getting into the habit of taking comprehensive notes every time you develop a new aspect of your invention. This means any advancements you make on your project need to be recorded and dated.

Revisions and improvements will need to be detailed and explained, as will any errors or experiments and tests that didn’t yield desirable results. Log keeping everything is essential, even the finer details that you may not think matter or relate to your end product need to be noted down. It’s part of the process. Think of it this way: the patent office wants to see exactly when your idea came to mind, how you thought of it, and everything that took place to lead you to your finished product.

On top of this, you also need to make comprehensive notes on who worked with you in the process, who had access to your intellectual property, and any NDAs that you enforced specifying that although others may have worked on the project or supported you, it’s fully your invention and your idea.

Whenever you’re thinking of inventing or creating something new, it’s advisable to seek guidance from a patent lawyer immediately as they can assist you in drafting legally binding NDAs should you need them.

2. Determine whether your idea is patentable under patent law

The second step is to remember that not everything is patentable and just because you’ve had an idea, it doesn’t mean you can prevent others from using it. In essence, this means you need to determine whether your idea is patentable before you even think about progressing further. The first step is doing a patent search.

A patent search will highlight any similar projects that people have patents for and tell you whether any aspect of your invention has already been claimed by someone else, including on an international scale.

Aside from this, you need to be asking yourself three main questions:

1. Is your idea something that has been explored before in a similar capacity, i.e., is it new?

2. Is your idea something that other people may easily think of, i.e., is it obvious?

3. Is your idea useful, i.e., is it practical and beneficial?

If you answered yes, no, yes, then you likely have fair grounds to file a patent request provided your patent search throws up no results. Remember, ideas are not patentable – you need to have a finished, quantifiable product in front of you.

3. Create a prototype

In line with having a finished product, it’s highly beneficial for you to have a prototype ready to send with your application. Not only will this solidify all the notes you made about your idea and how it will work in step one, but it will also provide a clear example of a problem-solving or unique invention that is marketable.

When you make a prototype, you will come across issues in your thinking that will need to be solved for the patent to be obtained, and you will also have an opportunity to think about getting a design patent to protect the aesthetics of your product that you may otherwise have glossed over.

If you can, it’s worth garnering the investment to develop a working 3D model, though if you’re unable to secure funding for such an endeavour, look into computer renders or highly-detailed drawings.

4. Understand application costs, types of patents, and provisional patents

When you’ve got your prototype, you can begin researching the actual patent process. This is costly so you need to make sure you have your finances in order. The type of patent will affect the cost, and there are other application fees associated with obtaining a patent.

It’s a good idea to file for a provisional patent first as this gives you the right to list your product as ‘patent pending’. When this has been done, you make an application for a non-provisional patent (the real patent). This is where a lot of your costs will come in, so you need to have secure funding in place before you reach this step.

Want to learn more about business funding and the types of business funding available to SMEs in tech?

Applying for a patent can be a costly process, especially for a startup that doesn’t have much backing from investors. Learn more about business and tech funding with our School of Startups guide on Finding Your Funding.

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5. File your application

When you file your patent, you’ll need to fill in a lengthy application form that details:

· How the product is made and how the invention can be used

· What makes the product different from current market models

· The exact parts of the product that you want the patent for

· The official name of the product

· Any supporting documents

It is at this stage that you are liable to pay. You also need to be aware that it can take years to go through this part of the process as there may be some pushback and appeals that need to take place if your idea gets rejected or questioned, furthering the need for a lawyer.

After the application

Once your application has been submitted, it will either be rejected or accepted. If it’s rejected, your lawyer may appeal on your behalf. If it’s accepted, you will receive your official patent a few months after you’ve settled all your fees.

At this stage, you will need to be aware of how long your patent lasts (this will change depending on the type of patent), and make sure you enforce your patent.

Online Accounting, CFO & R&D services for SMEs and startups

If you’re looking at how to patent an idea, your company must be in a good financial position to support the development of your invention and the expensive patenting process.

At Accountancy Cloud, our expert finance team can help you get your books in order and assess your financial standing, offering advice and support pertaining to attracting investors and getting your business off the ground. Get in touch with us to learn more about how we can support you with the financial aspect of intellectual property and business overheads.

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