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"I Built a Better Mousetrap"-- Protecting Your Creation With a U.S. Patent

by Larry Denton

So, you built a better mousetrap. Now, how do your protect your "perfect" creation from being stolen by a Fortune 500 company? The answer lies in the United States Constitution which gives the U.S. Congress exclusive authority to grant patents for inventions. Patents on new inventions are not an automatic right. Instead, an inventor must apply and be granted a patent by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The process is long, laborious and very time-consuming. How do you start the tedious process?

A U.S. patent is basically a contract between an inventor and the government. The U.S. patent laws were written to provide an incentive to inventors to create and publicly disclose their inventions. In exchange for full disclosure of an invention, the government grants the inventor the right to exclude others from making, selling or importing the patented invention.

There are three types of patents, they are: 1) utility patents which protect the way an article is used and works; 2) design patents which protects the way an article looks; and 3) plant patents issued for asexually reproducing plants.

In order to be patentable, an invention must useful, novel (new), and non-obvious--meaning that when viewed as a whole, the invention must not have been simply an obvious improvement in the invention's field when viewed by one of ordinary skill in that particular field.

The patent application process generally involves three steps. First, the person (or corporation) seeking the patent must file an application with the Patent Office. In addition to including a detailed description of how to make and use the invention, the application must include patent claims--statements that define the scope of the invention which the inventor is attempting to protect. Once the application has been filed, a patent examiner will be assigned to review the claims and the rest of the application.

The second phase of the process begins with the patent examiner performing a "novelty search"--checking prior patents, and all the available literature to determine whether the invention is really novel and non-obvious. During the course of the patent application process, the patent examiner and the inventor (or his attorney) will communicate back and forth with one another to determine novelty and answer additional questions which may arise.

Finally, the examiner decides on the patentablility of the invention based on the information found during the novelty search. Assuming the examiner is eventually satisfied that the patent claims are narrow enough to distinguish it from "prior art," and the inventor is satisfied that the claims are still broad enough to have value, the patent will then be issued.

Patent law does allow an inventor to "act for himself" in obtaining a patent, meaning the inventor can do everything himself. However, without some prior experience or some legal training there is the danger of applying for protection that is so broad that your patent is never issued, or is so specific that your invention is not fully protected.

Invention Development Organizations (IDOs) are private and public consulting and marketing businesses that have come into existence to help inventors bring their products to market, or to otherwise profit from their ideas. While many of these organizations are legitimate, some are not. Be extremely wary of any IDO that is willing to promote your invention or product without making a detailed inquiry into the merits of your idea and giving you a full range of options which you may pursue.

To fully protect your creative works and your potential profits, you should always consider obtaining the services of a competent and reliable patent attorney. While the costs may appear expensive, the protection offered by a U.S. patent for a commercially valuable invention more than justifies the cost.

Even after your patent has been granted, you may still require professional patent assistance. Patent professionals can monitor the marketplace for inventors (or copycats) who are infringing on your ideas. The strongest patent in the world is worthless if you do not ensure that it is being enforced.

About the Author

Larry Denton is a retired history teacher having taught 33 years at Hobson High in Hobson, Montana. He is currently Vice President of Elfin Enterprise, Inc., an Internet business providing information and resources on a number of timely topics. For a court room full of additional information and answers to your patent questions visit http://www.PatentPath.com

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