How to file a patent

Here are eight tips on how to file a patent whether you choose to file on your own or by using a patent attorney.

Got a great idea you want to patent? Chances are, you’re thinking about the rewards that it will reap you. In an ideal world, your discovery is so revolutionary that a Fortune 500 company’s willing to license it, then sign and deliver checks to your mailbox every month. A patented idea can be as good as money in the bank if it’s something the marketplace genuinely needs.

The truth is quite a bit more sobering, though. Estimates range from one in every 500 to one in every 5,000 patents that actually end up becoming commercially successful (per InventionStatistics.com). Those aren’t good odds, and that makes it all the more important that you think through you decision to file a patent and fully commit to your idea before moving forward.

A recent article in Entrepreneur magazine estimates that the most basic patents cost anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000 in attorney fees, take hundreds of hours in paperwork and can take up to six years to get approved.

If you’re still committed to forging ahead, though, here are eight tips on how to file a patent:

1) Decide whether or not you really need a patent. In theory, you’d think filing a patent on your brand new idea is a no-brainer. In practice, though, there are plenty of reasons why you might not need or want to file a patent. Think about the following factors before deciding whether filing is really going to pay off:

  • Will your design still be relevant in three to six years? If your design applies to a fast-changing field like technology, odds are, it’ll be out-dated before the patent office even looks at your application.
  • Are you certain you can turn your idea into cash? If at all possible, prove that your idea has legs before taking on a second mortgage. Hire a web designer to build a site advertising a product that’s similar to your idea, then track the number of visits and social buzz it builds.
  • In my experience, plenty of great ideas fail, and plenty of terrible ideas succeed. It all has to do with the commitment and passion of the inventor. Assess whether you realistically have the time, energy and focus to devote to marketing, filling out forms and meticulously documenting your invention. On top of that, will you be able to market your idea, even if it’s rejected by the marketplace for months or years?

2) Choose your approach. Filing a patent is a difficult process – particularly for the uninitiated. If you’ve got the commitment and gumption to go it alone, the DIY route is doable. Entrepreneur says to budget at least 150 hours to file your patent over several months (and anticipate lots of additional work in the years to come). Based on some digging I’ve done online, it looks like you should be able to file your own patent for somewhere around $3,000, payable throughout different stages in the patent process.

3) Find a patent attorney. The United States Patent and Trademark Office maintains a list of registered patent attorneys by geographic region. Search the list by state to find several attorneys in your area. Call around to find one that specializes or at least has experience in your specific industry.

4) Determine the type of patent you’re going to file. Currently, they fall into three categories: 1) Utility applications for a “new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or compositions of matters, or any new useful improvement thereof”; 2) Design applications for a “new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture”; and 3) Plant applications for “anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.”

5) Research the process for your specific type of patent. The U.S. Patent Office’s web site is a treasure trove of information. Depending on the type of patent you plan to file, you can click on the links below to start reading through background information, download forms and get guidance on the next steps to patent your idea:

6) Electronically file your patent. Once you’ve put together all the drawings, written descriptions (aka “claims”) and filled out all the relevant forms, you can submit your patent application online at on the Patent Office’s EFS-Web site.

7) Wait for a response. You should hear back from the patent office somewhere between 18 and 36 months after you’ve submitted your patent application. In most cases, they will have rejected your patent (according to Douglas Baldwin) because of competing patents that have already been accepted. Don’t get discouraged. The Patent Office should give you specific reasons why your patent is too similar to those existing patents, though, and you’ll have three months to organize and file a detailed appeal.

8) Wait for the results of the appeal. In one to two years, you should get a final response to your appeal. If your patent was rejected, you can appeal yet again, but we’ve got our fingers crossed for you. Hopefully, you’ll be the proud owner of a patent. And then the real work truly begins.

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