How Do I ... Get a Patent

If your average Dr. Evil took a trip down to 600 Dulany St. in Alexandria, Va., to patent his atomic destructor machine, his plans would have been thwarted -- no doubt saving countless bikini-clad vixens dangling over shark-infested waters ... and preventing some really horrible films.

Thanks to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, you just can't patent your whiz-bang weapon designed to be used solely with special nuclear material or atomic energy.

But if you've got another bright idea that you're basing your business plan around, you may want to patent it before somebody else does. The Patent and Trademark Office can tell you how to do it.

There are a lot of tricky details in obtaining a patent, and only about 5 percent of small, employing businesses have one, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

There are three types -- utility patents that cover things like machines; design patents that protect a new look for a product; and plant patents that address new varieties of plants.

It's important for a business to consider whether it really needs to invest the time and money in obtaining a patent -- and the answer might be "no."

The PTO, which has offices primarily in Virginia's Alexandria and Arlington counties, noticed that small businesses often lack familiarity with the process of protecting their intellectual property. As part of the agency's StopFakes campaign, it is aiming to educate small businesses via a Web site at

The campaign springs from agency concern that small businesses are not up-to-date with current patent rules and regulations. For example, agency research has found that only 15 percent of small businesses conducting business overseas are aware that a patent filed with the PTO provides protection only in the United States and its territories. In addition, it is necessary, in the case of inventions made in the United States, to obtain a license from the director of the PTO before applying for a patent in a foreign country.

The PTO's site offers a series of simple questions and answers to help you decide whether it makes sense for you to seek a patent. For example, it will help you answer whether your invention is patentable or who gets the patent if two or more people work together to create an invention.

The PTO offers an online searchable database of patents, but even the agency itself cautions on its Web site that it's not for the faint of heart:

"A patent application is a complex legal document, best prepared by one trained to prepare such documents" and searching for already-patented items is a "learned skill" and "you should seek out experts."

A lawyer or an expert is not required for an inventor to prepare and file a patent application, but the PTO says the filer "may get into considerable difficulty," and "while a patent may be obtained in many cases by persons not skilled in this work, there would be no assurance that the patent obtained would adequately protect the particular invention."

Many inventors employ the services of registered patent attorneys or patent agents, at least for their first patent filing. The patent office makes rules and regulations governing the conduct of patent attorneys and agents who practice before the PTO. Persons not recognized by the PTO for these practices are not permitted by law to represent inventors before the agency.

The PTO maintains a directory of registered patent attorneys and agents categorized by geographic region at

Or you can find a patent attorney in the phone book, and many large cities have associations of patent attorneys. If you don't like your patent attorney, you can sever your relationship by revoking the power of attorney granted to the lawyer.

Summary: You can find valuable information about how to protect your invention at the Web site of the Patent and Trademark Office, But the filing process for obtaining a patent is extremely complicated, and you may want to find a registered patent attorney or agent to manage the process for you.

By Sharon McLoone |  July 11, 2007; 6:00 AM ET How Do I...
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I am an example of a person who has patented a product myself. The complete story of the process from the beginning idea to the web site where the finished product is being sold is told on my blog: It would be very instructive for someone who wants to patent an idea themselves. I believe I went through a good share of the pitfalls that lie in wait for the uninformed would-be inventor.

My product is advertised at

Posted by: Vernon Sandel | July 12, 2007 2:41 PM

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