This is a guest blog from author Brette Sember.

macbook-923128_1280.jpgSome hear the word “patent” and think it only pertains to guys named Edison and Bell. But original ideas are sprouting up all the time, and if your small business is creating a new product or unique design, filing for a patent is absolutely a relevant consideration. Before you jump feet-first into the application process, however, it’s best to understand exactly what you’re getting into.

What is a patent?

A patent is a right given to an inventor by the Federal Government to prohibit anyone else from making the same product. It’s enforceable only in the United States, but does include products imported into the United States. You don’t need a patent to sell something you’ve created, but a patent does ensure that no one can copy your unique product.

Types of patents

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issues three kinds of patents:

  • A utility patent is the most well-known. For example, if you design a better mousetrap, you can get a utility patent for it. A utility patent gives you exclusive rights for 20 years.
  • A design patent is for a new kind of ornamental design that is part of a manufactured product. For example, the iPhone has a design patent for its appearance. This type of patent lasts for 15 years.
  • Finally, there is a patent for botanical plants that are discovered or invented, and it lasts for 20 years.

Should you file for one?

If you think your invention could be successful, filing for a patent will protect you from others who might otherwise duplicate and profit from your invention in the U.S. If you don’t file for a patent, anyone may copy and sell your product. They could even file for a patent on it themselves, leaving you unable to sell your own invention.

If your small business qualifies for small entity status, you may be eligible for discounts on the fees. Filing for a patent can be cost-prohibitive for small businesses, so be sure to check if you quality for these discounts. Then, carefully weigh the potential profits from your invention against the expense of filing a patent.

Prep work

Before you file for a patent, fully develop your product or design to make sure it works, is useful & unique, and is commercially viable. Don’t start the patent process until you are sure of these requirements. Experts recommend that you take detailed notes, including important dates, of the item’s development. This way, you can easily prove when and how you invented it.

If you decide to file, plan on investing a good chunk of time in the process; it can take many months to create an optimal application. That said, don’t let too much time pass! After you’ve publicly disclosed your invention, you have one year to file before your right to do expires. If you need more time, however, you can file for a provisional patent, which allows you an additional 12 months (more on this in the next section).

The filing process

The first step in the application process is to conduct a patent search to make sure that no one else has already patented your invention or design. Many people hire professional patent attorneys or patent firms to help with the search (and the rest of the application process) because it is time-intensive and complex.

As noted above, if time is an issue, you can file a provisional patent application. This basically puts your product in “patent pending” status and allows you another year to file the full patent application. You’ll need to include diagrams and details about your product or design with the application. Once submitted, it will be assigned to a patent examiner who will determine if you can be granted a patent. The entire process can cost well into the five digits.

The old adage, “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right” is certainly true with patent applications. Because the process can be difficult to navigate on your own, you’d be well advised to find the right patent attorney or application firm to provide guidance. And who knows? You may just make a mint for all that hard work and expense. At the very least, you’ll have a good personal tidbit for cocktail parties-- after all, how many people do you know with a patent?

Brette Sember is a former attorney and author of more than 40 books, including The Divorce Organizer & Planner, The Complete Divorce, and How to Parent with Your Ex. She writes often about law, parenting, food, travel, health, and more. Brette also writes for AvvoStories, brought to you by Avvo, the leading online legal marketplace connecting consumers and lawyers. Avvo’s free Q&A forum with more than 9 million questions and answers, along with on-demand legal services that provide professional counsel for a fixed cost, make legal faster and easier.