Have you ever had an idea for an invention? A solution to a problem you have put up with year after year and finally decided to solve it yourself? According to a Findlaw.com survey taken last year 1 in 3 Americans believe they have a patentable idea but fewer than 10 percent of them even pursued talking to a patent attorney. As an inventor who holds a couple of patents, I understand how intimidating and confusing the mere concept of intellectual property can be. In order to help other independent inventors better understand the process, I recently talked with one of the local patent attorneys, Mike Schacht, to gain more insight into all the forms of intellectual property and find out what inventors and entrepreneurs need to know about it.
The first thing an inventor, entrepreneur or small business owner needs to understand is that intellectual property is more than just patents and a product may need more than one kind of protection. Mike explains, “intellectual property is typically used to refer to intangible assets such as patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. As marketed, a product may include each of these various forms of intangible assets.”
When you decide you want to pursue protection for your idea, there is some initial research an inventor or entrepreneur can do before meeting with the patent attorney. Fortunately, the tools needed to do some of that research are readily available on the internet. Mike explains how “with online search engines, many of the tools formerly available only to professional searchers are now available to anyone. Perhaps the easiest to use tool is Google Patents, found online at google.com/patents. The United States Patent and Trademark Office website, found online at USPTO.gov, is very comprehensive but not as user friendly as Google Patents.” However, Mike cautions inventors to realize patent searching is not complete with a simple high-level search of a few pages. “Researching patents on a computer is very much an art. Different people may use a different word to describe the same thing. A good searcher needs to know how to craft the search criteria so that the search is not too broad or too narrow.” This is something a patent attorney or patent agent can help with.
For most inventors and entrepreneurs intellectual property is about managing the risk in their business or idea. “Like most business investments, the inventor introducing a product or service that can be protected by patents and/or trademarks should exercise due diligence before fully committing to the product,” Mike continues, “A new product can also raise question of patentability and infringement of the patent rights on another. One or more types of patent-related searches can help answer both of these questions. The purpose of a patentable novelty search is to search for prior art that might prevent the inventor from obtaining a patent covering the proposed product.”
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Mike points out that even when you search, there is still some risk. “Technology searching is inherently imprecise, and patent applications remain unpublished for at least 18 months after filing, so either type of search may miss relevant prior art/patents. However, the patent risks associated with new products can be significantly reduced by having the appropriate search performed and consulting with an experienced patent attorney.”
Another part of the due diligence for inventors is to find the right kind of patent attorney to work with. Patent attorneys are required to have some engineering, math and/or science in addition to their law degree. Some will have backgrounds in electrical, mechanical or chemical engineering, biochemistry or other degrees. Be sure that you find a patent attorney who has the right background to help with your invention. Bellingham is fortunate to have a few patent attorneys with varying backgrounds to meet most inventors and entrepreneurs’ needs.