While some people don’t choose to protect their idea, I believe you should. Does this mean getting a patent, not necessarily, it depends on the situation. I want to go over a few things to keep in mind when thinking about how to protect your ideas. Keep in mind, this isn’t an exhaustive list and is not legal advice, lawyers can give that.
NDA’s – No patent is required for an NDA to work. I’ve signed hundreds, probably even above a thousand, NDA’s in my life so far, and will sign many more. They are one of the easiest documents to use and protect you enough that showing someone your idea under NDA is fine while getting a patent approved. They can cover any information you share with someone. My favorites are mutual ones, it makes it easier when talking as both parties are free to discuss ideas without any fear of information leaking.
Provisional Patents – These are a great tool if you aren’t sure about the idea, need some general protection to show your product to the world, and don’t want to spent thousands on a full patent. It’s something I’ve seen many clients use, and as long as you don’t forget about the 12 month limit on them, they are a great tool to keep in mind.
Full Patents – There are two primary kinds, Design & Utility, there are some other ways to protect intellectual property, but these are the two that everyone thinks about, and most people try to get. In general, utility is harder to get than design, but things are changing as rapidly as one might imagine, and in ten years, who knows. Both are beneficial, and a patent attorney would be able to help select the right one for your project.
Going Overseas – What about going overseas? Well, you can file for international patents, but usually your best option is to find a good source of upstanding businesses who want your business, not to steal your idea. Things are even beginning to change in China where intellectual property is beginning to be protected more, so while many people are still afraid of overseas manufacturers, mostly places in Asia and India, the problems are decreasing and in another 10 years things could improve drastically. Just work with business that have a good reputation and avoid trying to find the cheapest place, it doesn’t work in the US, it doesn’t work in Asia, and it doesn’t work in Europe. You get what you pay for.
Prototypes – Once you get to the prototype stage of the process, keeping the product under wraps gets harder as vendors have seen at least parts of it, and depending on the size, it might be hard to hide. Don’t meet at Starbucks if you want to keep your prototype and idea hidden, spend the money on a meeting room somewhere.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list, it’s more like a short, big items to look at list. I recommend to every client who is even thinking about getting a patent to see an attorney. Often the good ones will give a short free consultation to give you an idea of what the best path is, and if there is even something there that is patentable. I’ve been surprised a few times on what part of a new product is patentable. At the very least, use NDAs, they aren’t iron clad and only protect you as much as you are willing to pay an attorney to protect it for you, but most people follow them and don’t share your information.