What is the cost of a patent?
It depends on the invention, the state of the technology, the length of the examination, and some luck. Very broadly speaking, a mechanical-electrical invention is anywhere between $5-20K from start to finish, with software patents ranging from $15-60k over 2-4 years. Predicting cost accurately is difficult; normally I can only predict application preparation cost because examination has so many factors over which I have no control. However, preparing better applications generally means shorter examinations and thus lower overall cost. A long examination can easily be 5 times the cost of application preparation.
Beware a cheap patent application preparation cost: the lawyer might be setting you up for a long, lucrative examination. Historically, I have been able to obtain a patent allowance after 1 examination letter 90% of the time with my prosecution method. One of the most grueling and expensive examinations I conducted was for a "simple" invention with a short, skeleton application the inventor wrote. Total cost was $1k at filing, but after 18 months of active examination, the final cost was closer to $20k. It's not worth skimping at the beginning!
I've invented something. What do I do first?
If you have any desire to commercialize your invention, you must apply for a patent before you reveal your invention to others. The law now is essentially "first to file" and there are many practical and tactical reasons to file a patent application to establish your earlier invention date. There are fast and relatively cheap options to become patent-pending, so there is no excuse for not filing sooner rather than later.
Note that mailing a copy to yourself is NOT proof of early invention date, and is not useful at all.
Do I need a Patent?
It depends on many factors, including what the invention is, how you intend on commercializing it, the size and sophistication of the market, etc. Generally speaking, gadgets need patents to protect value of licensing, etc. Small markets or areas with little competition used to negate the value of obtaining a patent, but with Amazon, even gadgets with small markets still benefit from patent protection. If you have a gadget, the lack of a patent means that you'll deal with competitors who are happy to copy your design and undercut you. If you are trying to license your gadget, it is pretty much impossible if you are not at least patent-pending.
Why is using a patent lawyer better than using a patent agent?
A patent lawyer has a law degree and is admitted to practice law in one or more states. The extra legal training means that these lawyers have both technical and legal skills, and having someone who has persuasive oral and writing skills is important and can mean the difference between a good patent and a useless one. Lawyers can also do more services, and have an eye towards enforcement later on, something that is not necessarily the focus of agents, nor of examiners. DIY inventors who rely on examiners to help write claims is risky because the examiner is not necessarily interested in broad claims. If your claims are too narrow, you may have a useless patent.
Overall, though, experience counts. Anyone with a registration number less than 30,000 is often retired or close to it. Anyone with a number above 60,000 is a very newly registered professional.
When can I stop an infringer?
When your patent application issues into a grant. Until then, you are just patent pending. For trademarks, you may be able to sue now based on unregistered use, if you have no registration, but it depends on your particular circumstances. For copyright, you are not able to take advantage of the penalties in the Copyright Act without prior registration of your work, prior to suing anyway. This is a unique feature of the US system that doesn't exist elsewhere.
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