Got a great idea for a business? Wondering if you can patent it before someone else comes up with something similar?
Technically, you can’t patent an idea for a business – for example, if you have a unique idea for an online store or a new chain of themed restaurants. However, you may be able to protect and patent a method of doing business – if it meets very specific criteria and requirements.
Here’s what you need to know about what patent protection can do for your business, and about other intellectual property issues that should also come into play.
What You Can Patent
There are three types of patents you can apply for based on the nature of your invention: utility patents, design patents, or plant (of the green variety) patents.
If you have a business idea that is somewhat abstract, then you may be eligible to apply for a utility patent. A utility patent may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful:
- Article of manufacture
- Composition of matter
- Any new and useful improvement of these.
That’s a pretty broad bucket of innovation. But the U.S Patent and Trademark Office(USPTO) is also very specific about the requirements for these patents. Your idea or invention must be:
- Non-obvious – meaning anyone else with the same skills in this area could not have come up with the same idea
- Clearly explained and documented so that someone equally skilled could make and use the invention
The Patenting Process
If you are confident your idea falls within the definitions and requirements above, check out the next steps, which will include checking for previously filed patents, and are described here by the USPTO. If you’re not clear whether your idea falls within these boundaries, read USPTO’s “How do I Know whether my Invention is Patentable?”.
Either way, it’s worth taking time to consult with a patent lawyer. If you choose to proceed, be prepared. This can take time and using the services of a patent attorney to help you meet the precise documentation and filing requirements is going to cost you. If you are seeking outside investment and have established that your business idea or invention is patentable, it may be worth rolling the cost of getting legal help into your business plan and seeing if your investors will cover the costs.
Other Ways of Protecting Your Business Idea
Even if your idea isn’t patentable, there are still important assets of your business you can protect. For example, web content can be copyrighted. You can also trademark, and should do so if you want to claim and protect your product or business name. Here’s a quick overview of these two forms of protection and how to register for them:
Copyright – If your business involves creating original written works, music, or videos, these can be covered by copyright laws. Copyright can be claimed through the U.S. Copyright Office for a small fee. Note that copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. While you can express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, copyright will not protect the idea itself.
Trademark – A trademark is different from a patent because it only protects words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish goods and services. Trademarks, unlike patents, can be renewed forever as long as they are being used in commerce. Trademark infringement can carry a high cost for your business. Before you pick a name, use the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s trademark search tool to see if a similar name, or variations of it, is trademarked. If your chosen name is unclaimed you can then register for the trademark online (for a fee).