Steps to making sure your “ah-ha!” moment doesn’t become an “uh-oh” moment
It doesn’t matter if you are a garage inventor or part of a team of inventive engineers at a large technology company; when you find the solution to a problem, you want to believe that you are the first, it is your idea, and you (or your employer*) own all the rights and associated benefits. You are ready to make some money on it! Unfortunately, ownership does not automatically come with that “ah-ha” moment.
If you begin acting on your invention, such as finding investors, partnering for advancing development, or even selling a product or service, you might very quickly find yourself in an “uh-oh” moment: someone else already has claimed that “novel” idea and is suing you. Or, you have shared your intellectual property and someone else sees a way to grab it – and your earning potential – away from you.
Before you can truly claim ownership of your invention, you need to understand where the idea resides in the world of intellectual property. You can take steps to avoid costly mistakes, secure the rights your innovation, and prevent someone else from benefitting from your work. One approach is to revisit your elementary school rules: do your homework, turn it in, and put your name on it. Keep in mind these three Ps:
This is your homework. You need to be confident that your invention is new, useful, and non-obvious. The new part is the trickiest. If it is not new, then you can’t own it. You are done. Proving that your idea is new takes a lot of research (not just a quick Google search). You can use the US Patent Database or a patent database from another country. You need to search as many databases as possible.
Recognize that prior art includes more than patents. Non-patent literature such as white papers, presentations, study results, even user guides can step on your idea’s “newness” and push you right out of ownership. If you know where to look for prior art, do you know how to look? Your best search strategies combine keyword, Boolean, and natural language queries. Be creative.
Patent or Publish
After you have performed a thorough prior art search and discovered nothing that matches or challenges the novelty of your idea, write it up and turn it in. This is now your intellectual property to protect. As other inventors are going through the prior art search step, you want to make sure they find your idea and stay out of your space. Using the proper legal channels and professional guidance, you can patent your invention. This places it in a patent database, depending on where you apply.
Another way to submit your paper is to defensively publish it in an accessible database of patent and non-patent literature. Typically, a defensive publication describes the problem you uncovered, states your novel solution, and explains the steps for implementing it. It can include figures and diagrams to illustrate enablement. Publishing can be a faster and more cost-effective option over-patenting. This makes your idea easily discoverable and prevents others from claiming it.
The “put your name on it” piece is a bit flexible. If you are defensively publishing, an anonymous publication can help prevent other inventors, companies, or institutions from detecting your research and development plans and trade secrets. The point is to make sure others can find your idea, and then stop them from owning it.
Do you own your invention? Only after you do your homework and turn in the paper, is the invention yours to advance, market, and monetize. Now, go for it!
*If you are an inventor working on behalf of an organization (i.e., company, institution, university, government agency, etc.), then rules and laws may apply that give ownership to the organization, not the individual.