April's featured article

Be Smart While Swimming with Sharks

Michael Razavi : Office of Innovation Development

What's that ominous music playing in the background? Did a shadow just pass beneath the water? Stay calm because help is on the way.

In the reality-based television show "Shark Tank," inventors from across the country pitch their inventions to a panel of potential investors, looking for a billionaire to take an interest and invest in their products. But television isn't the only place this kind of feeding frenzy occurs. Every day at tradeshows and conventions, in boardrooms and on showroom floors, inventors make sales pitches to potential investors. What do the successful inventors often have in common? They know the most important aspect of safeguarding their product or service: they can tell the world with confidence that the invention is theirs because they have applied for or have been granted a patent.

As small business owners and inventors pitch their inventions to potential investors or partners, the question arises: what proprietary information, if any, should an inventor disclose? Some inventors feel inclined towards secrecy, because "If I keep it a secret no one will be able to steal it." That's true; however, if you keep it too secret no one will ever know about it either. So what's an inventor to do?

Protect your intellectual property! Independent inventors often first file for a Provisional Application for Patent. This is a cost-effective initial step towards securing patent protection. A provisional application establishes a "priority date"-a date that you can claim as the effective filing date when you later file a full, nonprovisional application. A provisional application also provides a 12-month period (and further extendable using the Extended Missing Parts pilot) to mark your invention as "patent pending," which is a strong warning to would-be infringers. With a provisional application, you can also disclose your invention to others without losing the ability to get a patent later.

Inventors may ask, "But if I make a disclosure without filing an application, don't I have a one-year grace period to file a patent application?" The answer is yes. In the United States you have a one-year grace period from the date you first publicly disclose your invention to when a patent application must be filed. But you need to be aware of a few things. The grace period is only for the invention disclosed. If you want to avoid triggering the grace period, the safest course is to file a patent application. And very important is to also remember is that if you plan to seek patent protection in a foreign country, you may be barred from doing that because the patent laws in many countries do not allow a grace period like the United States. These countries often require that your first disclosure of an invention is in a patent application. Learn more about international patent protection on the USPTO's website.

If you haven't filed for a patent, should you get nondisclosure agreements from anyone who's getting your product pitch? Nondisclosure agreements offer some protection and can be a way for you to safeguard your ideas and inventions. But if you're going on television or showing your invention at a tradeshow, you'd have to have every single person who will see it sign an agreement. That means every person who watches television or every person who goes to the tradeshow. Obviously that's impossible. Nondisclosure agreements can be useful tools, but not in all situations.

Visit the USPTO's Inventors Resources page to find out more about what help the USPTO provides independent inventors as they take their invention from idea to commercialized product. These tips and tools include:

Whether you're jumping into the tank for the first time or have already begun pitching your product, consider the available options to safeguard your inventions. Knowing that your intellectual property is protected while you pitch them will give you confidence and assurance that nobody can take advantage of you without risking strong legal consequences.

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The USPTO gives you useful information and non-legal advice in the areas of patents and trademarks. The patent and trademark statutes and regulations should be consulted before attempting to apply for a patent or register a trademark. These laws and the application process can be complicated. If you have intellectual property that could be patented or registered as a trademark, the use of an attorney or agent who is qualified to represent you in the USPTO is advised.