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  • 04 November 2014
  • Eric Michaels

A guide to patents: Do you need one for your business?

As an entrepreneur with a new product or design, you may have concerns about intellectual property rights. Do you need a patent to protect your product or invention or could you bring it to market without one? The first step is to sort through the intricacies of patents and patent acquisition. Here's a guide to the patent process and how to apply if you decide this protection is necessary.

Patent vs. copyright vs. trademark
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) website offers help for the entire process, beginning with a definition of terms. According to the USPTO, a patent is "an intellectual property right granted . . . to an inventor to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention" in the U.S. for a set period (typically 20 years.) Public disclosure of the product design occurs at the time the patent is granted.

A guide to patents: Do you need one for your business?

The two main types of business-related patents are:

  1. Utility patent. Anyone who invents or discovers a machine or process for manufacturing can apply for a utility patent. Discoveries that substantially improve upon existing patents also fit into this category.
  2. Design patent. Someone who invents a new or original design to be manufactured can apply for a design patent.

Copyrights covers books, songs, theater works, or any other category considered "original works of authorship." Trademarks and service marks, on the other hand, exist to indicate the source of goods and differentiate them from those of other vendors. These concerns may arise when you are naming your company or the products you produce.

Making a business case first
Before applying for a patent, you need to be sure there's a real market for your invention, and since applications are exhaustive, it's not a process to be taken lightly. Once you've done your homework and determined that no one has a patent for something similar on the market, decide if the patent process is necessary.

Since anyone can sell a product on the open market, you do not need a patent to operate a business offering manufacturing articles. However, you may need protection if your product is too close to one that has already been patented. Depending on the originality of your idea, a patent may be the only way to confidently navigate the marketplace.

Once applied for and received, the business implications of a patent are explicit. You have exclusive rights to make and sell your invention for 20 years. This protects you from anyone trying to copy or market your invention in the United States, as well as anyone importing goods into the U.S. During this time, you have the right to license the use of your invention for fees you set. Remember that if you also want protection outside of the U.S., you'll need to also apply for international coverage.

Applying for patents
As might be expected for something as powerful as a patent, the application process can be a lengthy one. Once you determine which type of patent is appropriate for your invention, you'll need to submit your application and supplementary materials to the USPTO. You may need help from a patent attorney, particularly if you're also applying for international protection.

Once the USPTO receives the application, the office may have objections or ask for clarification about certain details of your invention. Upon approval, you'll have to pay the patent issue and publication fees. Additionally, maintenance fees for the patent are due every four years. But despite these costs, U.S. patents offer strong protection for your intellectual property. If you have a unique idea and a strong business plan for producing and marketing your invention, the patent process can be well worth it.

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