Don't Believe the Hype About Patents

There’s a widely held myth — probably perpetrated by attorneys — that every business idea should be patented.

While it’s true that many businesses have struck it rich by patenting a great idea or invention, before you rush out and spend $5,000 to $10,000 in patent fees, keep in mind that not every idea is worth protecting. Many businesspeople waste a lot of effort protecting and fighting for ideas of dubious value. For example, it’s estimated that less than 3% of patented ideas are even commercially successful.

How can you tell if your idea is worth patenting? Certainly, if it’s an innovative idea that’s key to your business success — particularly, if your business relies on the sale or licensing of technology — you should contact an attorney who specializes in intellectual property and inquire about patent protection. A good patent attorney will want to know your chances of making money off your idea. If your chances are slim — for example, you cannot manufacture your product at a price that’s competitive — it’s rarely worth patenting.

If you’re confident about pursuing a patent, it’s essential to consult an attorney early on, since there are time limits (starting with when you first sell or publicly expose or publish your innovation) that can prevent you from obtaining patent protection.

And don’t forget the main rule underlying patents. “Protection” may not really protect you. You’re “protected” only if you’re willing to sue people who use your ideas without permission. Considering that lawsuits over these issues commonly cost $50,000 or more in attorney fees (and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get it back), it’s no wonder that many people find it too expensive to enforce their rights.

Richard Stim Author, Whoops I’m in Business: A Crash Course in Business Basics San Francisco, Calif.

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