There are two legal ways to protect your invention that you will want to consider before spending thousands of dollars on a patent. But before we get into that, you need to understand how intellectual property rights work.
Intellectual Property includes patents, trademarks, servicemarks, and copyrights.
A) WHAT IS A PATENT?
A patent allows you to exclude others from making or selling the invention but does not grant you the right to make or sell an invention. Generally, the term of a new patent is 20 years, and U.S. patent grants are only effective within the United States.
There are three types of patents:
1) Utility patents cover processes, machines, articles of manufacture, composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement of something.
2) Design patents cover the design or look of an invention.
3) Plant patents cover asexually reproduced distinct and new varieties of plants.
A utility patent is the strongest patent an inventor can obtain to protect an idea and how it works.
A design patent, although significantly less expensive, will only protect the way your invention looks (shape, color, size, etc), not the way and reason it works.
B) WHAT IS A TRADEMARK OR SERVICEMARK?
A trademark is a word, name, or symbol used to distinguish your products from others. A servicemark is the same as a trademark except it identifies a provider of a service, not a product.
Trademark rights may be used to prevent others from using a similar mark, but not from making or selling the same products or service.
C) WHAT IS A COPYRIGHT?
Copyright protects works of authorship: literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, etc. A copyright gives you exclusive rights to reproduce the creation, to distribute copies, and to perform or display the copyrighted work publicly.
A copyright protects the form of expression not the subject matter. So a description of a product can be copyrighted, but someone else could write a similar description, and even produce the product from your description, then market and sell the product. Copyrights are registered by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.
2 Economical forms of Intellectual Property protection
Two very economical forms of protection that you can use in the beginning stages of your idea are a Disclosure Document and a Provisional Patent.
A) The Disclosure Document Program allows you to send in a paper to the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) called the Disclosure Document, describing your invention, “as evidence of the date of conception” of your idea. This record is kept on file for two years, but this is not a patent application, so it will only give you minimal protection. In other words, you need to begin completing your invention and pursuing a patent ASAP. A disclosure document filing costs $10 at the time of this writing.
B) The Provisional Patent Application allows you to put “patent pending” on your product, allows you to file for a patent without a lot of red tape, and it allows you to file for a foreign patent in other countries. Filing a provisional patent also allows you to test your idea, find funding, perfect it, establish retail accounts, etc. However, it is only good for 12 months, and during that time you need to file for a full patent.
According to the USPTO, “inventors are strongly encouraged to file a provisional patent application instead of a Disclosure Document”. I highly recommend this strategy. It is quite beneficial and only costs $80 at the time of this writing.
SUMMARY OF IP RIGHTS
Although this gives you a fair amount of information on intellectual property rights, you will likely get more complete information from a patent attorney. There are areas in which you may want to seek counsel, such as patent writing, and contract negotiation.
There is a great deal that you can learn on your own about writing patents by simply reading through patents that have been published. You can find these online at http://www.uspto.gov. Familiarize yourself with this website, it has many tools that will help you learn more about protecting your ideas.
I learned how to write patents by reading patents that were similar to products I was developing until I began to recognize and understand the language used. This can help you whether you are writing your own patent or having an attorney do it. Either way, you should at least have an elementary grasp of how the document comes together.
As far as filing for copyrights, trademarks, or servicemarks, these things are as simple as following directions and filling out paperwork. For trademark, or servicemark forms, contact the USPTO by phone, mail, or email. For copyright forms, contact the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.