You should patent that….or should you?

I come up with ideas all the time.  Some are good, some are bad. At my previous job, we could turn our ideas into patents.  I have over 30 US Patent applications, 19 issued patents (it takes years for those applications to turn into issued patents).  DISCLAIMER: I have a bunch of patent experience, but I’m not a patent lawyer.  Take this article with a grain of salt.

Every once in a while, I would get a comment from someone along the lines of, “If you come up with a really good idea, you should quit your job and then patent it.” Now, I know they were just trying to be encouraging.  Much like when people find out I can solve a Rubik’s cube in about 20 seconds, and they’ll say, “You could win a competition.”  No, I can’t. Probably won’t make it to the second round. Anyway, I never decided that any of my ideas were worth leaving my job for.  I got paid by the company for ideas provided to them.  It was a win-win.

I did learn a lot about the patent process.  The company wasn’t shy about letting us know how much was spent to get a single patent.  But I’m going to be, because that’s probably confidential information. Let’s just say it was more than the cost of a Snickers bar.

On TV and on the Internet, you see those “Patent your idea for $X”.  Well, according to one site, the cost of a patent (all the fees) if you do everything yourself is $1,520. They say that getting a lawyer will change the cost to $5,000 to $10,000.

But here’s the thing.  That lawyer, his goal is to get you a patent.  A patent doesn’t magically protect your invention.  It protects what’s patented.  This may be your entire invention, it may be just some key ideas.  So there’s what’s called “narrow patents” and “broad patents”.  Narrow patents are ones that protect very specific ideas.  Broad patents are ones that protect a much bigger idea.  For example, having a patent on a combustion engine would be wonderful.  Having a patent on a combustion engine that has 5-cylinders and is designed to work in extreme cold situations?  Well, that’s nice, but it’s not as lucrative as the first.

But, guess which one is easier to obtain?  Despite what people think, the Patent Office doesn’t just approve everything.  There’s back and forth negotiation between the USPTO and the lawyers.  Certain claims will be denied.  Sometimes, the entire application will be denied.  Sometimes, that nice broad application get whittled down to a just a few claims.

Also, to infringe on a patent, the person needs to infringe on a claim.  Just being similar isn’t enough. If my engine design runs in cold weather, I may not be infringing on your patent. Maybe, I’m doing special heating that’s different from yours.  Your claim probably isn’t about running in cold weather, but about a certain way to heat the engine (or perhaps a certain way to make lack of heat not an issue).

I’ve seen a patent that was written to get issued.  It’s claim all chained together.  So to infringe, you had to do this AND this AND this AND this AND this AND this AND this.  The person who got it issued didn’t understand how patents worked. It would be very easy to work around the patent.

The lawyer who did that patent had a goal of having the patent issued.  The lawyers who worked for my previous company?  Their goal was to have the patent be good for the company, enforceable, and valuable.

If you have a brilliant idea, yes, there may be some situations where it could be helpful to get a patent.  But perhaps just getting it out to market and having the market exclusively to yourself for a while might be a better route.

What are your thoughts?

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