Amateur Inventors FAQ

When light bulbs go on, questions come up. Here are some guidelines for those new to the inventor's bench

Thomas Edison's 1880 light bulb patent application.
Bright Ideas Deserve to Be Plugged InPhotolithography reproduction (reprinted by the Norris Peters Co.)

"Should I patent my invention?"

Getting a patent is expensive and time-consuming, so don't just start filling out an application as soon as you come up with a bright idea. John Calvert, the administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Inventor Assistance Program, offers advice on whether it's truly worth it.

  • Short of a getting a patent, legally there's not much you can do to protect an idea that could be easily replicated.
  • You can expect to pay about $5,000 to the patent office to secure and maintain the rights to a patent, and another $3,000 to $15,000 for attorney's fees. But the more legwork you can do—from researching similar inventions to making sketches—the less it will cost you. Patent attorneys in cities like D.C. or New York often charge more for the same services as those in places like Alabama or North Dakota. Many will work with you remotely, potentially saving you a few grand.
  • Once you've filed, you still won't have any rights to stop someone from making a product that infringes on your idea. At that point you can send the infringers a cease-and-desist letter, but you can't sue them. Once you receive the patent, potentially years down the line, you can take legal action.
  • Mark your invention "patent pending" after you've filed. That's fair warning to potential infringers that you can send a cease-and-desist letter.
  • Remember that there's no such thing as a worldwide patent. Someone in China can (and probably will) see your idea, rip it off, and sell it there without consequence.
  • Still, an approved patent can be extremely valuable, giving you a mini monopoly in the U.S. for 20 years. After that, it expires, and you can't renew.

"Are Those Invention-helper Organizations Worth It?"

Be careful of invention-marketing Web sites: the U.S. Patent Office lists complaints about 60 such sites that make money by exploiting inventors. That said, some of the best help you can get is at your computer. Here are four of the most useful sites.

uspto.gov and google.com/patents
To avoid overlapping with an invention that has already been patented, search the official government site and the more beginner-friendly Google Patent Search.

edisonnation.com
A social network where you can find other groups of inventors by field or region and take advantage of the wide membership. Survey people by posting a question, or start your own group.

uiausa.org
The nonprofit United Inventors Association offers a 10-part educational series on topics such as licensing deals, financing, market research, avoiding scams, and other need-to-know basics.

web.mit.edu/invent
The Lemelson-MIT Program's handbook provides help with issues like how to prove an idea is yours, developing a solid business plan, and deciding whether your invention is worth patenting.

"How Secretive Should I Be?"

Loose lips can sink potential inventions. So be very careful about sharing proprietary information. Anytime you write about your invention on the Web or in a published article, display it at a trade show, or make it public in certain other ways, that could qualify as a legal disclosure. From that moment on, you have only a one-year grace period to file for a patent; if you don't, you lose the claim rights, and anyone else can try to patent it. Louis Foreman, author of the upcoming Independent Inventor's Handbook, suggests that you have anyone you discuss the invention with sign a nondisclosure agreement, a legally binding document in which the signer agrees to keep mum.

"Can I Get Rich?"

Before you start dreaming of an early retirement in Tahiti, you need to face facts: Most inventors don't get wealthy from their idea. Selling your invention to a major company will usually get you 2 to 4 percent of the gross sales as a licensing fee. If licensing isn't an option, you can try taking it to market yourself. That route is riskier and can be hugely expensive — anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000 for development, to thousands more for production — but you can make 40 to 50 percent margins.

"How Do I Get Investors?"

From the time you come up with an idea, expect to spend 50 to 70 percent of your time raising capital from angel investors, says Ellen Sandles, executive director of the Tri-State Private Investors Network. Here's what you need to know to get the big check.

  • Know your angel. Some invest only in start-up ventures, whereas others seek more mature companies.
  • Most angels invest anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000.
  • If you haven't actually run a business, you should partner with somebody who has.
  • Plan on dipping into your own pocket. If you expect investors to risk their money on your venture, you should contribute 20 percent of your own net worth.
  • Approach investors only after applying for patents, and come with a prototype and a solid business plan in hand.
  • You don't need to have any revenue yet. You do need to be working on a marketing plan to prove that you ultimately can generate revenue.
  • You'll get far more attention if you line up customers who are willing to test or sample your product.

Where are they now?

Updates from some of last year's laureates.

Prosthetic Foot

Prosthetic Foot:

2008 Invention Winner
"My company was awarded a $750,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research."
Jerome Rifkin
Russell Breeding

Mine Tracker

2008 Invention Winner
"This month, we expect to have a beta system installed in one of the largest underground coal mines in southeastern Ohio. We've received $400,000 in funding and a loan for $792,000."
Mine Tracker
StunStick

StunStick

2008 Invention Winner
"I hope to have StunStick in full production shortly. I'm also in discussions with Neiman Marcus about debuting the civilian model in its catalog."
Fred Pearson