They say necessity is mother of invention. That was surely true for Johan Vaaler who in 1899 decided he was tired of having to sew pages together to keep them organized. Voila, enter the paper clip. This wasn’t the case for Percy Spencer. He was a radar tube designer working at Raytheon who, while working in front of an active radar set, noticed the candy bar in his pocket started to melt. Exploring the phenomenon further, he placed corn kernels in front of the radar and behold, he ended up with the world’s first microwaved popcorn. He patented the microwave oven in 1945.
Whether by necessity or by accident, what should you do if you develop a unique tool to accomplish some portion of your work faster, easier or less expensively? How do you protect it from misappropriation by your competitors, or by an errant employee? We are all familiar with the fact that in today’s internet driven market, it has become very easy to reverse engineer and knock off an innovative product.
The best way to safeguard your invention is of course to register it with the appropriate government agency – the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Generally done with the assistance of a patent lawyer, the process is neither inexpensive or abbreviated. It could cost several thousand dollars and take 12-18 months. But more important, this is not sufficient. You must regularly monitor your patent to police possible infringers. Many folks think the USPTO does this; it does not.
If your product is to be fully protected, its specifications should also be kept secret, meaning they are not easily accessible to third parties. And because any misappropriation is often the result of an insider revealing the secret, you should have employees with access to the item’s specifications sign confidentiality agreements.
All this is of course based on the presumption that you are the inventor and as such own all rights to the invention. But be careful. If you work for a company, you may have signed away your rights to ownership of any invention developed while working there. Most companies require their employees to acknowledge that any invention is actually a work for hire created on behalf of the employer as part of one’s job. Even without a written agreement, if the item is created within the scope of one’s employment, it shall likely be considered a work for hire and the inventor shall have no further rights to it.
Inventions make our life and our work much easier. If you actually have one, protect it.