BLOG: Protecting Your Ideas Part I—Copyrights and Patents

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Most of us have had an idea for a new product or service only to dismiss, postpone, or neglect it. Sometimes we later find that others had the same idea, but took it to market before we did. By that time, it is too late for us to take advantage of the idea.

Ideas are relatively easy to come by, but inventions are more difficult. It takes knowledge, time, money, and effort to refine an idea into a workable invention, even on paper. Turning an invention into a new product accepted by the marketplace takes a lot of effort and a little luck. There are substantial barriers in the path of those who pursue innovation. Overcoming them requires careful planning and plenty of input from others.

Hundreds of thousands of inventors and innovators file each year for protection under U.S. patent, trademark, and copyright laws. However, it can be hard to decide which of the three vehicles is most appropriate for the protection of a particular invention. Although a single product or service may require a patent, a trademark, and a copyright, each category protects a distinct aspect of a creative work or expression.

Patents, copyrights, and trademarks, as well as know-how or trade secrets, are often collectively referred to as intellectual property (IP). Many firms have such property without even being aware of it or understanding the need to take measures to protect it.

Many people’s notions of IP are unrealistic. Some believe, for example, that simply having a patent on a product will enable one to succeed in the marketplace. Consequently, they may spend thousands of dollars to obtain the exclusive rights to market something that no one wants or can afford to buy. Others may decide that IP protection is not worth the trouble.

People who may not be interested in protecting their own rights must still take precautions to avoid infringing on the rights of others. This calls for more than the avoidance of copying. Some copying is unavoidable, but one can easily infringe on the rights of others without deliberately imitating specific features of goods or services.

Copyrights and Patent FAQs

What is a copyright?
The owner of a registered copyright enjoys the ability of blocking the unauthorized copying or public performance of a work of authorship or “work” for short, protected by copyright. Depending on how old a work is, whether or not copyright was renewed, when the work was published (if at all), and whether or not it is a work for hire, the U.S. copyright term for a work may be 28 years, 56 years, the life of the author plus 50 years, 75 years from the publication date, or 100 years from the date of creation. These terms are much longer than the 17-year or 20-year term of a U.S. utility patent.

What exactly does copyright protect?
Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship, including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture. Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. For more information refer go to the U.S. Copyright Office website (

What is a patent and how do I know if my invention is eligible for a patent?
A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Patent holders have the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention described in the patent deed. The intent of patents is to give the developer of a new product time to recover development expenditures and startup costs without having to fight competition. Eligibility patents cannot be obtained for inventions that have been publicly disclosed, are in use, or marketed in the United States for one year prior to the filing of the patent application. Secondly, a thorough patent search, preferably done by a professional, must be conducted to make certain that the applicant’s idea hasn’t already been patented.

What is a provisional patent?
Provisional applications are like temporary placeholders; they allow inventors to file inexpensively without a formal patent claim, oath, or declaration. Once the application is filed, the applicant has one year to investigate the feasibility, marketability, patentability, and potential license interest of the invention before deciding to file a formal patent application. Meanwhile, the term patent pending can be applied to the invention, and the inventor enjoys a calendar edge on other inventors who may file for the same invention.

Can you give me some information on companies that can help with my invention?
Invention development companies are research companies (both public and private) that help inventors develop, patent, and promote their ideas so they can be commercially licensed or sold. While many of these organizations are legitimate, some are not. Here are seven tips to help you make smart invention choices:

  1. Learn about the patent process. When you understand the basics of how to get a patent, you will know when invention marketers are making promises they or the patent system can’t deliver.
  2. Do your homework. Check the organization’s references, ask for credentials, and then check them.
  3. Be realistic. Not every invention is patentable. Be wary of any developer willing to promote virtually any invention.
  4. Know where your money is going. Ask the organization how your money will be spent. Be on guard against large upfront fees.
  5. Protect your rights. DO NOT disclose your invention to a developer over the phone before first signing a confidentiality agreement. You could forfeit valuable patent rights.
  6. Track your invention’s progress. Once you decide to use an invention-development organization, deal directly with the agent or patent attorney who will be handling your patent application.
  7. Get professional help. The patent process can be very complicated, so you will probably need professional help. There are many good patent agents and attorneys that can help you. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office maintain a nationwide register of attorneys and agents who meet our legal, scientific, and technical requirements (

Stay tuned for our next post, where we will continue our discussion on protecting your ideas and the frequently asked questions regarding trademarks.