You Don’t Need a Lawyer to Get a Patent

From the Nolo eCommerce Center

Thousands of inventors have successfully obtained patents without hiring lawyers. Here’s how.

You’ve got an invention – a product or technology that would fill a need or solve a problem. You might even make some money, if you could get the exclusive right to produce or to license your invention.

In other words, you need a patent.

But you have more imagination than money, and a patent attorney wants $7,500 to file a patent application for you. Must your invention gather dust in the garage, or can you apply for a patent yourself, without a lawyer?

Thousands of inventors have successfully navigated the patent system on their own. In fact, federal law requires patent examiners to help individual inventors who apply for patents without a lawyer’s help.

To obtain a patent, you need to be able to describe all aspects of your invention, and you need to make sure your invention qualifies for a patent. These aren’t “legal” skills, and learning them is no different than learning any other skill, whether it’s auto repair, deck installation or gourmet cooking. Some steps are easy, others are more difficult. As with all new endeavors, you will succeed by trial and error. But by taking the process one step at a time, you can acquire a patent.

Here’s a quick look at the basic steps you need to take before filing a patent application. You’ll see that nothing about the process requires a lawyer. There’s no court, no judge, no “legal” research. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) has specific rules, but you can follow them just as you would a recipe in a cookbook.

Keep a careful record of your invention. Record every step of the invention process in a notebook. Describe and diagram every aspect and every modification of the invention. Depending on the invention, you may also need to build and test a prototype. Document all of these efforts. Sign and date each entry and have two reliable witnesses sign as well.

Assess the Commercial Potential of Your Invention. Applying for a patent is a business decision. Even without a patent attorney it costs $1,000 in fees to file and obtain a patent from the PTO. Before you spend the time and money to file a patent application you need to research the market you hope to enter. What sets your invention apart from the other products in your field?

Make Sure Your Invention Qualifies for Patent Protection. You cannot get a patent just on an idea. You need to be able to show how your invention works. Your invention must be new. This means it must be different in some important way from all previous inventions. It also cannot be for sale or be known about for more than a year before you apply for a patent.

Do a Thorough Patent Search. To make sure your invention is new, you need to search all the earlier developments in your field. This involves searching U.S. (and sometimes foreign) patents, as well as other publications like scientific and technical journals, to find related inventions.

Although patent searching is time consuming, it can be mastered with practice. It is a research rather than a legal skill. Even if you decide to hire a professional later on in the process, you know the most about your invention, so you are the best person to start the search.

You can start your research on the Internet, but you may also want to visit a Patent and Trademark Depository Library, where you can search earlier patents and get help from a librarian.

When you search, you will certainly find other inventions that are similar to yours. But if your invention is special, you will be able to show how it improves upon or is different from these earlier developments, and you will be able to prepare a strong patent application.

Four Who Dared and Succeeded – Intrepid Inventors Who Got Patents Without Lawyers

Ask a patent lawyer if an inventor can get a patent without a lawyer’s help, and you’ll probably be told it’s well-nigh impossible – just too complex, special knowledge required, lawyers’ years of training and experience, and so on.

But if you ask some of the 100,000 plus people who’ve bought Nolo’s Patent It Yourself, by David Pressman – well, you don’t need to. Nolo did.

John Stewart – Orlando, Florida

John Stewart left AT&T in 1988, but he hasn’t exactly taken it easy since then. He’s filed 21 patent applications – and already seen 17 of them approved. Among his patented inventions: hydraulic exercise equipment, a sidewalk lifter (to repair uneven sidewalks), an electric shaver and a volleyball net adjuster.

The decision to handle his own patents was an economic one; paying a lawyer $5,000 for each patent Stewart wanted to pursue would have meant legal bills of over $100,000. Stewart says he didn’t feel at a disadvantage without a lawyer. The patent examiners he worked with were cooperative, he says – though not always as competent as they should have been.

Carol Randall – Los Angeles, California

Describing herself as “a housewife with a head full of ideas,” Carol Randall says she had a great experience getting a patent herself. She received a patent for ear clips, which keep ears from being burned by hot combs or the chemicals in hair relaxers.

Randall’s experience with the Patent Office was very positive. When they saw that she was handling her patent herself, she says, they went out of their way to help her. A patent examiner even rewrote part of one of her claims to make it stronger.

This was her second patent; she hired a lawyer for the first one, but decided to forge ahead on her own this time. “Why the heck not?” she says. “The lawyers wanted $4,000 to $6,000. What have you got to lose?”

John Jacoby – Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania

John Jacoby realized he was wasting his money on a patent lawyer after he gave the lawyer some legal information. The lawyer put the same information in a letter back to him – and sent a bill for it.

So he decided to save himself some money, and struck out on his own. He was awarded a patent for his Clean Sweep® device, which cleans windshield wipers as you drive.

Paul Vandervoort – Reno, Nevada

A friend, who had spent $9,000 on patent lawyers’ fees, gave Paul Vandervoort three pieces of advice about getting a patent: 1. Don’t hire a lawyer. 2. Don’t hire a lawyer. 3. Don’t hire a lawyer.

Vandervoort took these tips to heart and has never regretted it. The process was easier than he expected, he says. He’s been granted a patent on a bushing for keys on a musical keyboard – and has three more patents pending.

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