Story last updated at 12:24 p.m. Friday, September 6, 2002

Inventors warned
To do it right, protecting your idea through a patent, trademark or copyright is not easy, and not cheap. Articles in a recent edition of the Homer News and other national publications imply that it can be done on the cheap and without much effort.

The use of invention and patent service companies has been touted as one of the easiest ways to protect intellectual property. But, just like Buyer Beware!, the inventor also needs to beware. The old saying "if it seems too good to be true" applies to invention protection, too. The Federal Trade Commission, through its Web site, is a useful tool for helping inventors understand the pros and cons associated with working with the service companies.

The difference in cost between the invention service companies and "doing it yourself" is small. Doing it yourself may require more effort, but you have the peace of mind that it is getting done right and that you are getting what you pay for.

The key to any invention is to make sure that it can be protected, that it is protected, and that it can be commercialized. Each is inter-dependent and should not be viewed separately. These three parts require help from people with different skills, but the inventor can accomplish some of it.

The first step is to make sure that there is no "prior art." That is, no one has patented the same idea. The U.S. Patent and Trademark office offers advice for independent inventors through its Web site web/offices/com. The U.S. Patent Office can also refer you to local Patent and Trademark Depository Libraries. Attorneys will charge anywhere from $350 to $1,500 for this service.

Assuming you are first with the idea, the next step is to file a provisional patent application. This is easy to do and costs approximately $80. Filing online at will protect you for 12 months from the date of filing. You now have the breathing room you need to implement your plan. Keep in mind, though, that you must file for full patent protection within 12 months from the filing of the provisional patent.

Now comes the business "test" to make sure that your invention can be commercialized. That is, can you make money from it? Do this before you even think about filing for a full patent.

Commercialization can take two basic forms: building a business around your product idea, or licensing it to others who need your product. Business consultants can help you with this phase, but before you try the paid-consultant route, talk with your local SBDC counselor. SBDC counselors have wide experience in the business areas and can help in many ways. If they can't help, the counselors will point you to others who can.

Once you have a business plan developed around your product idea, you know that it is worthwhile spending the time and dollars to protect it. This is the expensive part, because there is no way around hiring a qualified patent attorney -- not just any attorney, but a real patent attorney. Hiring the patent attorney can cost anywhere from $5,000 for a simple invention to $25,000 for more complex inventions like software programs and the biosciences.

So, how does this "do it yourself" method stack up against using the invention and patent service company? The costs work out about the same. Long term, if you have a really strong product idea and a powerful patent to protect it, you can be miles ahead versus the service company. Remember, those service companies take a piece of the action whether they find a market for it or not. Treat your invention like any other valued asset -- make sure you do your homework before making a commitment.

Mike Haines