A patent expert shares where entrepreneurs go wrong and what to watch out for
You’ve got a big idea! This is the one that’s going to change your life and the lives of others, you’re sure of it. But are you positive it hasn’t been done before? Is it different enough to set it apart from the competition and earn you a patent? How do you get started and who can help?
Have no fear! TechOhio is here to help.
To answer these questions and more, we spoke to Ran Raider, a Wright State University librarian who also happens to be a U.S. Patent and Trademark Resource Center representative and leads workshops about patenting for entrepreneurs.
While each patent situation is different, Raider shared some basic steps that every Ohio innovator can follow to navigate the patent process successfully, along with some of his most common tips for would-be inventors along the way.
- Learn to describe your invention: This seems easy, right? You’ve probably done it a million times. But when aiming for a patent, you’ll need to describe your product in a way you might not normally think about it.
Some questions that can help you find your focus, according to Raider: What does it do? What is its essential function? What is the effect of the invention? What is it made of? What is it used for?
And don’t get hung up on only its main purpose. Think about the inner workings of your product. Raider uses an electronic dart board as an example. You’re not just describing the game of darts, you’re describing your scoring system, electronics and more, and many of those elements will have their own related patents.
- Start keyword searching. The bulk of your time working toward a patent will likely be spent searching through existing products in patent databases.
Raider recommends using the European Patent Office database to begin your search. Instead of limiting yourself to one country, the EPO’s site searches 100 countries and regional patent authorities in addition to American patents. He warns that you won’t find “everything,” but you’ll get pretty close.
The idea is to use keywords — from the obvious to the seemingly unrelated — to find the closest matches to your idea and determine how they’re different from your product.
- Take your information to an attorney: Now that you’ve done some of the legwork, you can head to an attorney for professional help without breaking the bank. Raider said the patent search process can cost around $500 per hour.
Once you have the data, an attorney will be a big help in navigating the difficult processes ahead. Be sure to keep a log of what you’ve done and what your attorney has helped with — that will be important for patent officers who are looking over your ideas later.
As you start the process, here are some helpful tips from Raider that will keep you on track and ensure that you don’t repeat mistakes made by countless other entrepreneurs along the way:
- Don’t assume: Raider says the biggest problem he sees with entrepreneurs is that they assume because they’ve never seen it before, it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case, and some sort of similar product is bound to pop up during your searches. Raider’s rule of thumb is that only about 5 percent of all issued patents make it to the marketplace, so there are plenty of ideas lying around unfinished.
“There are a lot of products that you haven’t seen before,” he said. “There are so many patent documents you won’t be aware of.”
- Finding something similar is good: Another common misconception is entrepreneurs hoping their product is completely unique and unrelated to any previous ideas. On the contrary, Raider says, you want to find something similar. Searching patent records is not about ensuring nothing like your invention exists. Instead, it’s about finding things that operate in similar ways so that you can differentiate yours.
“You’ll have to explain to a patent examiner why it’s different and how it’s different from everything else out there,” Raider said. “You want to see the differences between your invention and what other people are using.”
- Go beyond the first keyword: Raider knows that everyone searches for keywords related to their product, but not everyone is searching the right words to find what they’re looking for. Raider uses the example of a retractable dog leash — searching for “dog leash” will give you a lot of unrelated dog products. Instead, you should be searching for the mechanisms inside, which are similar to prisoner control systems and tape measures in addition to dog leashes.
“I always tell people to start with keyword search but look for a pattern in the classifications to narrow your search,” he said.
- It’s a long process: However long you assume your search will take, it will probably take longer. Patent prior art — previous disclosures of a technology — includes everything from journals to websites to trade magazines, and Raider said he’s even seen MAD Magazines cited in patent documents. In this process, you’ll have to look through it all.
“People think this can be done in a weekend, and it really can’t,” he said. “It’s a matter of months.”
- Use a patent attorney: It might seem like just any lawyer will do, but Raider strongly suggests using a registered patent attorney, who has to take a special bar exam, is allowed to prosecute patent applications and practice in front of the patent bar.
“I have inventors who say, ‘I don’t want to talk to someone because they’re going to steal my idea,” he said. “These attorneys can be disbarred, and they’d lose a very good income, so I don’t think you need to worry.”
- Stay away from invention promotion firms: You’ve probably seen the ads on television. These firms promise to help you patent your idea and make you a true inventor. Unfortunately, Raider knows they’re rarely successful. He’s looked through thousands of complaints about these companies and has seen the data. Only around .008 percent of inventors who use their services are successful patenting a product, so steer clear.
“It’s very seldom that someone is successful using an invention promotion firm,” he said. “They tend to get you a design patent, which is just an ornamental thing – it’s easy to get through that process. With a patent attorney, it would probably cost $2,500 or $3,000, but these firms will charge you tens of thousands with limited results.”
If this process seems like a lot, take a deep breath and remember that there are resources to help you out.
Check out the variety of organizations, workshops and more in Ohio’s entrepreneurial network, and be sure to keep an eye out for Raider’s recurring classes in Dayton, along with other events geared toward entrepreneurs.