by Graham Harris
I once met an inventor who was so paralysed with the fear that his idea might be stolen that he put off applying for a patent. The idea of trusting in what he felt was a flawed patent system and paying out between £3,000 – £6,000 to apply delayed his decision to move forward, and 18 months later his worst fears were realised as he entered a local store in his area only to see a virtual copy of his product sitting on a shelf – he was mortified.
My take on potential issues relating to patent protection is that you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Without a shred of doubt, I would advise inventors to apply for a patent and do everything in their power to strengthen it so the chances of it holding up in court are stacked heavily in their favour.
I have lost count of the amount of people I’ve come across in the last 19 years, ever since I set out on my own mission to invent, who have “kicked themselves” because they should have patented some idea they dreamt up, only to see it in B & Q, a well-known toy chain or one or two other famous superstores. Although a high percentage of such claims might be fabricated, I have witnessed a few heartbreaks where patent paralysis has reared its ugly head and led to would-be inventors losing out.
4 ways to guard against patent paralysis:
1 Keep your idea secret
I am a true believer and advocate of keeping product ideas secret in the period before you apply for a patent. I won’t even tell a family member or one of my team when I first set something in motion. I trust them, but even an inadvertent slip up that leads to an outsider knowing something of my creation process can result in my patent being contested or invalidated further down the line (a Chinese whisper really could lead to someone else beating me to market). However remote that possibility may be, I have to take this subject seriously, especially having a track record in dealing with 7 infringement cases already.
2 Take notes but hide your notepad
If your bright idea does make you a tidy sum it could attract the attention of a potential infringer, so you may need to provide the more technical details of your product, especially if an opposing lawyer contests some of your claims in a court of law.
I would therefore urge you to log your development process including sketches in a diary to reduce or eliminate such a scenario developing. And place it somewhere safe where no one will find it.
3 Find yourself a trusted patent attorney – make your idea watertight
Providing you have done all you can to research the potential viability of your great idea, you will need to make sure your patent is watertight. A patent attorney should give you a free half an hour consultation to ascertain whether your idea may have legs – your notebook and any mocked up proto-type will help formulate a picture of what your product will do.
And providing your patent attorney gives you the heads up, you will be given an option to disclose more information and begin the patent process. As part of the application process, you must pay for a patent search and a ‘substantive examination’. You can request the search either when you apply or later in the process. You must request your search within 12 months of your filing or priority date. If no other patents or prior art documents are cited you are free to monetise your invention.
You shouldn’t be daunted by this process, it is your chance to articulate how your product will work in your chosen field. I usually invite my own patent attorney to visit our showroom to see it functioning in the environment it will inhabit. Another important tip is for you to include all the materials and shapes you tried or included during your development phase, and some you didn’t, this will reduce the risk of competitors trying to design around your claims later on.
Being uptight and defensive can feed patent paralysis, so be vigilant and relax. I would encourage you to spend time reading over your patent application again and again, so you begin to understand and trust the patent language, which is clearly different than in our own technical fields.
Talk to your patent attorney and be meticulous in how you create such an important document, work hard to understand each other’s perspectives. Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and trust in the system, it is up to you to articulate to your patent attorney exactly how your invention benefits its customers, in order not to leave a loophole for anyone to exploit. Put this extra work in at the start and it could help you avoid a lot of trouble in the years to come.
Graham Harris is founder and Managing Director of Tech-ni-Fold Ltd and Creasestream LLP, global leaders in print creasing technology. His invention has saved customers over £8billion to date. His book Against the Grain is available now on Amazon