A question I frequently get from prospective clients is, “Is my invention patentable?” Variations on this inquiry include the following:
• “Can I patent an improvement to a device that is already available?”
• “Is it correct that in order for something to be patentable, it has to be at least 10 percent different than the known device from which it is derived?”
• “Can I get a patent on something that is already on the market, but I am using it in a new manner?”
The scope and breadth of what is patentable is very broad and wide. Chances are if your invention is useful, new (also referred to as “novel”) and not obvious, it is patentable.
Patents protect the rights of inventors to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling their invention throughout the United States or importing it for a specific period of time. Most people know this. But ask the same people what an invention is, and more often than not, the response will be much more narrow than is actually the case.
The prototypical invention is a completely new widget, tool or device that does something or accomplishes a task better (faster, easier or cheaper) than whatever was done before. In popular imagination, the likes of Thomas Edison remain the prototypical inventor: a person sitting in his lab, garage or workshop dreaming up ways to solve the world’s problems. Factually, however, the prototypical invention and the prototypical inventor are the exception rather than the rule.
Given the foregoing, perhaps the next question is: “What exactly is considered an ‘invention’?” You would think that this would be an easy inquiry to answer, but that would be wrong.
At its broadest according to Merriam-Webster, an invention is “something invented,” which requires us to look up the meaning of the verb “invent,” which is “to produce (as something useful) for the first time through the use of ingenious thinking and experiment.”
Putting this together, an invention is something new and useful invented by a person, and it can be anything from a new drug to a new medical device to a gardening tool to a manufacturing process to a musical composition. In other words, an invention may improve upon or create a new process, machine, device, product, result, function, discovery, art object—or even a genetically modified plant. Often times companies overlook patent protection because they do not consider the item or process an “invention.”
For example, even if the ultimate product is not patentable, the specific process, tool or machine that you use to make it is. If that process, tool or machine yields a product or result that is faster, cheaper or better than patenting the process, tool or machine may have enormous value to your company as you can prevent others from doing the same thing. This can give companies a competitive advantage in the marketplace, especially in mature industries.
If you think your invention is patentable, by all means protect it. Consult an attorney. The next step is to obtain a U.S. patent for your invention, which is the granting of a property right to the inventor(s), issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Contrary to popular belief, new patents are issued all the time to ordinary people, just like you, with not-so-ordinary ideas.