You have a great piece of software or technology that you have developed, and you think it could be worth something. Should you file a patent? And how hard or easy it is to do?

Patents (most of which are issued for 14 years) are an interesting mix of the complicated and the obvious. This is emphasized by the sheer volume of patent applications. 520,277 applications were filed in 2010, and around 250,000 patents were actually granted. But many patents are also successfully amended after a first denial—especially if the inventor gets qualified legal help to fix any original filing problems. Talking with a lawyer will make it easier to spot issues about earlier, similar patents or give protections against possible future infringement of your patent. For more information about the difference between patents, copyrights and trademarks, visit this page.

Of course, “costs” are the most common questions for an inventor who is starting the patent process. While always important, thinking of the apparent costs of a patent may actually confuse the process. This is because the costs of getting a patent are not always what decides a successful patent. Instead, getting advice from a lawyer is often the very best first question: “Is it the right time to get help on my patent?”

A lawyer will first help explain the type of patent that is likely to be needed, and they may recommend first filing a provisional patent. Provisional patents require less work (and expense) to file, but only last for one year, so if you really want to protect your idea you will have to eventually file a regular patent application.

Many inventors, more interested in creating things and not getting a patent, might simplify their process by working with a lawyer who will help set up a business to get the patents. This may also identify investors, while also getting as much proprietary (such as trade secrets) protection as possible, before filing a patent application. While patent law is entirely federal, getting legal help also makes it easier to protect an idea by knowing what state laws or rights might help protect your idea.

Because patents are so important to the entire American business system, the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) is making the system easier, all the time. For example, some patents may be filed entirely online (USPTO.gov). Part of the reason e-filing is meant to make the process easier is because of delays in actually getting a decision. Waiting has been one of the least easy parts of filing for decades. From initial filing to a final decision, the average PTO wait is now almost three years. Because experienced lawyers can watch for USPTO “red flags,” getting legal help can be not only the best investment, but also the easiest step in the whole process.

- Claire Kalia

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