In The Trenches
drawn. However, since you have no
patent, you can't stop your competitor from manufacturing the product,
If the competitor files before you
start selling your product, then you
have a problem. This is the basic
reason for obtaining a patent in the
first place — to give the patent-hold-er an advantage.
Beware of any company that
says it will "develop and market"
your idea. If you are lucky, they will
include your idea in a book of hundreds or thousands of other unrelated ideas and send them off to a
handful of uninterested companies.
It's human nature to want to see
your idea succeed. These people
use that for their profit. Only work
with reputable agencies.
There are others who will get a
"design" patent instead of a "utility"
patent. It's much cheaper for them.
But, of course, a design patent only
covers what the product looks like,
not what it does. So, it's not very
useful for you. Understand what you
are getting before you pay your
Obviously, there is no way to
discuss all possible methods of
protection for all cases. However, it is
possible to sketch out some basic
NUTS & VOLTS
There are two basic considerations that have to be made before
thinking about a patent. The first is
financial. If you spend $10,000.00
on a patent, how many units must
you sell to recover that investment?
Suppose your product's selling price
is $500.00 and the basic profit is
$200.00 per unit. You have to sell 50
units to recover that cost. On the
other hand, If your product sells for
$50.00 and the basic profit is
$20.00, you have to sell 500 units.
(And, if your basic profit isn't at least
this big, you'll have problems making money.)
So, the question here is can you
afford it? Would that $10,000.00 be
better spent on advertising or better
manufacturing equipment? It is surprising how often this fundamental
consideration is ignored.
The second point is what I call
the "Wow" factor. If a customer looks
at your product and thinks "Wow.
How can they sell this so cheaply?"
then there is little chance of someone copying your product.
Conversely, if they think "Gee, I
could make this for 1/10 the cost!"
then there is incentive for copying.
More simply put, a good product at
a good price is often all the protection you need. This is also called
good business. The object of copiers
is to make money. If someone can't
make a lot of money duplicating
your product, they won't.
Generally, I suggest to my
clients that patenting a product is
not cost effective. The money can
usually be better spent in other
areas. If a patent dispute should
arise, it will cost a lot of money to
resolve. Can you afford to front
$100,000.00 in legal fees? How
many sales will be needed to recoup
these expenses if you lose? (If you
win, often the other side pays for the
Probably the most difficult thing
to do is place a realistic "worth" estimate on an invention. The inventor
always thinks it's worth much more
than it is. That's just human nature.
However, calculating the worth
through a realistic sales volume
provides a more objective guideline.
Of course, over-estimating sales
volume is also common. Be
I tell my clients that a patent
should be considered for a process
(not product), if that process has
widespread utility. For example, if
you've figured out a process for
sending data at 1 mega-bits/sec.
over ordinary telephone lines, seriously consider a patent. (My patent
for post-sampling anti-aliasing has
not made any money for me.)
There are things you can do to
make your product less likely to be
copied. Remember, copiers are looking for an easy buck. Making it difficult for them aids your protection.
That said, there is still no guarantee
that someone won't copy it.
For embedded software, the
best protection is the code-protect
option of the microcontroller. This
prevents anyone from reading out or
copying the code. If you aren't using
such a controller, you should.
Putting the code into an ordinary
EPROM is just like publishing it.
If you have to have an external
ROM or RAM, then encode the data.
This doesn't have to be a sophisticated cipher. There are lots of simple
procedures that can be frustrating to
would-be thieves. For example,
change the LSB/MSB order in every
other location. Add spurious and
meaningless data. Change the data
values by their address. Be creative!
It won't take you much time to recode your data, since you know
what you are doing. But, to an outsider, it will be a mess. (Be sure to
document what you do so that
authorized technicians can properly
troubleshoot the unit.)
Always add "copyright" to all
code. It may not be worth too much
but it's easy to do and can give some
protection. Even if it's only psychological.
Also, copyright all printed circuit
boards. This is important and useful.
It means that a potential thief has to
re-layout the board. This means
more work and potential problems.
Copyrighting schematic diagrams and other drawings is also
useful. Technically, if they copy your
product and try to produce it, they
are sometimes forced to copy the
documentation. This may give you a
legal basis for a lawsuit.