What You Say vs. What Your Patent Lawyer Hears
Clients ask me all the time, “Should I get a patent?” While that is certainly the most important question an inventor can ask of a patent lawyer, most patent lawyers answer this question incorrectly. A “Can I” patent question is right in the patent lawyer’s wheelhouse. A “Should I” patent question is not. Patent lawyers therefore tend to hear the question as “Can I get a patent,” which is a much different question. The “Can I” question relates to whether the invention meets the minimum criteria for patentability, namely is it new, useful and non-obvious. Another reason patent lawyers answer “Should I” patent questions as “Can I” patent questions is that the answer to the “Can I” question is “Yes” far more often, and it is a rare patent lawyer that could not use and extra ten thousand dollars. A final reason why patent lawyers often view the “Should I” patent question as a “Can I” patent question is that if the patent lawyer incorrectly answers “No” to the “Should I” question and the client loses millions because they thought the patent lawyer was answering the “Can I” patent question, the patent lawyer could be on the hook for millions of dollars in malpractice damages. Conversely, if the patent lawyer erroneously answers “Yes,” instead of “No,” the malpractice damages are probably more in the tens of thousands of dollar range.
Is It Worth Getting a Patent On Your Invention?
While it is important to get input from patent lawyers, accountants, marketers and business professionals, only you can answer this question. Many new inventors plan on selling their patents to large companies. This is very difficult to do. Unless you have existing contacts in the industry, many large companies will not even meet with a first-time inventor. What most inventors do not realize is that without a great management team, business plan and/or industry contacts, very few businesses or investors will be interested in an invention, even if it is patented. A good place to start to develop a business plan to determine things like your start-up costs, projected revenue, and how much a patent would be worth. Not all patents are created equal. Good patents are worth more than bad patents. What makes a good patent? Market, Breadth and Quality.
Is your patent in a crowded market with low-priced substitutes? How much more can you demand from consumers because of your monopoly in this market? What percentage of this market can you reasonable hope to capture? If you are in a saturated low-margin market, with many viable substitutes, getting a patent on your product would likely be little more than a vanity.
How broad will your patent be? Is your invention similar to what else is out there? Is is an obvious combination of what is out there? How easy would it be for your competitors to “design around” your patent? No one can tell you ahead of time how broad your patent will be. But if there are a lot of similar items already on store shelves and/or already patented, even the best patent lawyer in the world will only be able to get you a narrow patent, one that is easy for competitors to design around and which provides you little value.
The quality of your patent depends a lot on your patent lawyer. If you hire 100 different patent lawyers to draft a patent application on your invention, you will get back 100 different patent applications. No two would be the same. The quality of the patent applications would probably range from great to worthless. While great patent lawyers cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, bad patent lawyers can certainly make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. What makes a great patent lawyer? Look for a patent lawyer other lawyers recommend. Look for one with a lot of actual patent writing under his or her belt (search Google Patents for their name) and look for some particular expertise in the field of your invention. Look for a patent lawyer who has sued infringers for patent infringement and won. Patent litigators know what they need to put into a patent to win at trial and to convince infringers to settle.
Can you defend your patent?
The cost of getting your patent is chicken feed compared to the cost of successfully suing an infringer. Just the attorney fees alone average 1-3 million dollars per side for a full patent infringement jury trial. The key for a small inventor is to find a qualified, experienced patent litigator who will take the case on a contingent basis. In a contingent fee case, you do not pay any attorney fees unless you win. Convincing an attorney to take your case on a contingent fee basis means having a broad, high-quality patent, with damages large enough to justify the cost of going to trial. With a bad patent, it will be very difficult to a quality lawyer to take your case on a contingent fee basis.
Do the Legwork First
Determining whether or not you should pursue a patent on your invention takes some time. Find people you trust, attorneys, accountants, successful inventors and/or other business professionals who will sign a confidentiality agreement and help you build a business plan. If your business plan indicates a patent is a good idea, ask your advisers to recommend a patent lawyer. If they don’t know of anyone, ask them who they would ask for a recommendation. Search the patent lawyer’s name on Google Patent to see the kind of technology with which the patent lawyer is familiar. Check ratings agencies like Martindale-Hubble to see how the patent lawyer’s peers rate him or her (an “AV” rating is the best). Ask if the patent lawyer offers a free consultation and take them up on it. Ask them if you should get a patent and see what they say.