In The Trenches
by Gerard Fonte
The Business of Electronics Through Practical Design and Lessons Learned
In The Trenches
Intellectual Property Protection
So, you've just conceived the
best idea ever. How do you
protect it? There are four basic
protection tools available that need
to be defined before any discussion
can proceed: patents, copyrights,
trademarks, and secrets. After the
definitions, the pros and cons will be
NUTS & VOLTS
A patent is a formal government
conferred right for the commercial
production of some product or
process by the US Patent and
Trademark Office (PTO). There are
three areas of patent protection. The
first is a "utility" patent. This is generally the "better mousetrap" group
of products. However, this also
includes procedures. For example, if
you have developed a new way of
doing something, rather than the
something itself, you can get a
Then there are "design" patents.
These are for the appearance of a
product, rather than for its performance. You can patent the front panel
layout, for example, so that no one
can make a product that looks like
Lastly, there is the bio-medical
"plant" patents. These are for gene-modification and the byproducts
from them. You probably aren't likely to be involved in this, if you're
reading this magazine.
Patents provide a legal basis for
a lawsuit and can be enforced for up
to 14 years. The original idea of the
patent was to provide protection for
the start-up of a business until the
business could become established.
US patents are not good overseas.
Additional patent applications must
be made for foreign countries (with
a few exceptions). World-wide patent
protection is extremely expensive.
(If you have to ask "How much?" you
can't afford it.) A much more
detailed presentation on patents was
published by Danny Graves in the
September 2003 issue of Nuts &
There is also the "Provisional
Patent Filing." This is a relatively
inexpensive method (about
$1,000.00) that basically provides a
preliminary date for filing. There are
no patent claims and no patent
examination. The PTO simply files
the invention and assigns a date.
You have a year to apply for a formal
Usually this is used to determine
the value/market of an invention
before filing for a standard patent.
The important point is that the
invention has a date assigned to it.
This helps settle disputes about who
filed first for similar inventions.
My Patent Story
In April 1996, I went to a patent
attorney and started the patent procedure. I did most of the work. I
wrote the body of the patent and
drew the illustrations. The attorney
wrote the claims and an associate
re-drew the illustrations to the proper
specifications. It was filed with the
PTO on August 2, 1996.
After the patent review and additional clarifications, the patent was
granted on September 29, 1998
(Patent 5,815, 101). The elapsed
time was about 2.5 years. My costs
were $9,195.00. And that doesn't
include continuing patent mainte-
I recently called several patent
law firms to determine what the current costs were. I was told that typical utility patent costs are in the
$15,000.00 to $20,000.00 range.
Remember, this is for the legal fees
associated with developing the
There are some firms that will
simply file the patent for you. One
firm I talked to would do this for
$1000.00. But that's all they do.
They don't look at the patent itself.
You can do everything yourself.
However, this is risky. The actual
patent protection comes from the
claims at the end of the patent. If
these are not written properly, the
patent may not cover very much.
Look at some patent claims.
You'll see that they have a writing
style that is not transparent. It's
difficult to follow what the claims
mean. It's much harder to write the
claims. At the very least, a patent
professional should review your
application, not just file it.
Anything written on paper can
be copyrighted by simply saying so.
The copyright symbol — a "C" with a
circle around it — can also be used.
The date should be included, but is
not necessary. A copyright provides
legal rights against the direct copying of text or pictures.
The electronic "paper" of the
Internet is somewhat vague in some
details about copyrights. But, generally, if someone copies what you
have written, without your permission, you have a basis for a lawsuit.
Obviously, you cannot copyright