Forgotten inventions, or so you want a patent
Fun fact about me, I enjoy making things. You know, in case that wasn’t obvious. But, once upon a time I thought it would be smart to make sure I protected my ideas so I hold one patent based on something I came up with. Or at least I did have one patent, now once the paperwork is done it will be two. Unlike my in progress papers I can actually freely talk about this, but for the most part I think the journey is the important part of the story.
According to google scholar my first patent was issued way back in 2017. In pandemic years that’s roughly 234322131232452343 million years ago. And I don’t talk about that patent very often because it makes me angry. When I got it, I ( probably overenthusiastically) reached out to every company and distributor I could think of and no one would touch it. It might as well have been radioactive waste and that just depressed me. Before we get into how to get a patent, I think it will be fun to share this story, I’ll try to keep it brief.
School shootings are a horrible, very American thing that make me incredibly angry (apparently I’m just an all around angry guy, I just learned something about myself). So one day when I saw on the news a recent shooting I thought, ” wow, if people are going to be stupid I wish we could build a force field around students to keep them safe.” Then the thought expanded to just schools in general. Which got me thinking about force fields and then to fields in general. In particular, wifi.
See wifi is one of those things that is surprisingly hard to block, which is great for connectivity (despite somehow always feeling slow…) it’s hard to completely block wifi signal without some distance or throwing your computer/phone/whatever, into a faraday cage. So we already have a pseudo force field surrounding schools and my idea was simple, what if we designed a firearm lock that wouldn’t allow you to fire in the presence of school wifi. Easy, and after some back and forth I was issued patent #9599418 which I was very proud of at the time because I wanted to save lives and I felt like I was actually doing something instead of complaining about the problem.
But nobody was interested in the product. I got hung up on, straight ignored by a person I was pitching the idea to midway in the conversation, and on one occasion escorted out of a building. To be fair I may have implied they were complicit in murdering children when they said something like that was not needed. So there’s that…
But I didn’t give up my dreams of inventing and I did file for one other patent and it’s been going back and forth with the lawyer deciding its fate, for five years now I want to say? It’s been awhile, so sometimes patents are fast (my first took less than a year) sometimes they really drag. So say you want to get a patent, where would you start?
As it turns out there are non-profits who help people who don’t have a whole lot of income file for patents. In my case, both patents were handled pro bono or at no cost to me, not too bad, right? I don’t recall the one I used, but I do remember where I found that information, the USPTO (this page specifically) and with a little work you too can have your very own patent! Granted I only have (soon to be) two, but the process was super easy and the people I worked with were amazing.
Okay so you want to file, what do you do? First you need an idea, got one? Great, now you need to make sure it’s not incredibly specific, with me so far? When I went through the process the first time, I thought like an engineer. I built a working prototype and everything before I spoke with anyone about it and when I finally met with the lawyers (as in a group of them) I literally listed everything that went into the design. They put a stop to that rather quickly. It turns out you don’t have to have a prototype. Hell your idea doesn’t even have to work, that’s not the point of a patent (strangely enough). The idea is that you believe your idea is worth something and that’s good enough for the patent office.
So you have an idea and you can either do one of two things, hire a group/person to do what’s called a prior art search or you can brave the patent world to see if your invention already exists! You would be surprised on both ends of the spectrum on what exists and what doesn’t. USPTO offers a database you can query, but I prefer good ol’ google (google patents that is). The patent office will search prior art to reject your idea, but it’s really your job to do it so try to be thorough. Once you’re sure your idea doesn’t exist it’s time to talk to a lawyer about your claims.
Patents are made up of claims and there are two types, intendent and dependent. Just like they sound dependent claims rely on other claims you’re making and independent claims stand alone. So typically the first claim of your patent will be your independent claim (you can have multiple, but one is all you need) and everything else expands on that claim to either clarify the scope. You can have dependent claims that narrow your scope so it doesn’t “bump” into another patent, or you can have dependent claims that expand the scope (think usage or something along those lines).
Luckily for you and me, we don’t have to worry about that, we just need to convey our idea and claims to the patent lawyer and they will help put it to paper. You can, in theory, write your own patent application. I do not recommend that. I toyed with the idea before I found the pro bono service and I’m thankful I didn’t do it because patents are in a whole different language. I invented things for two and both patent applications might as well be in greek. If I squint hard enough I can almost make sense of it. Your patent lawyer will probably pat you on the head and explain anything you don’t understand if you ask nicely though.
So your patent lawyer held your hand and wrote the thing for you after some conversations. If you’re like me you feel extra useless at this stage, but they are the experts so you go with it. Then they file it on your behalf. You can file yourself, but it’s best to let them do it. There is a fee, but if you’re eligible for the pro bono service you don’t make a whole lot, so you’re what the USPTO considers a “micro entity” which means you pay the least for your patent ($600 USD if I recall correctly). It’s not a small amount for sure, but it’s cheaper than I imagined.
Then you wait… and wait… and wait.
Depending on your idea it’s assigned to a different part of the USPTO and they all have different wait times. That’s why my first patent was so fast, my second is for what I would designate as a medical device, but I’ll make a seperate post specifically about it here soon (ish, it’s busy few weeks). They will most likely respond saying your patent is already a thing and send some examples of patents that exist or are about to be issued. In the US it’s “first to file” which means if you sat on your idea for 10 years and someone else filed before you finally got to it, they get the patent. Which means, in theory anyway, there could be pending patents that cover certain claims or worst case, all of your patent claims.
This is where having someone helping you is a huge bonus. Because they will help reword your claims, remove claims, etc. to help get your patent approved. You get three shots before being charged again, which is why I want to emphasize the prior art search part. You have two options at this stage, slightly shrink the scope of your patent or heavily shrink it. That’s between you and the patent lawyer, but the first time I filed I got a rejection, we slightly changed the scope, and it was approved.
Eventually (with luck) you’ll get a patent approval. Once that happens the USPTO will issue you your patent in a fancy little book and you officially have protection for your idea. The key is that you have to stop others from making your idea though, so for example if a company released my firearm lock tomorrow it would be up to me to stop them and that would probably involve lawyers, but having the patent means I can do that.
There are other ways to protect an invention, patents mean the whole world can see how your idea works. Sometimes people don’t want that, but for the most part patents are great and obtaining one was a good experience, even if nothing came of the first one.
Maybe I’ll make a more formal post about this some time, but that’s the basics of the patent process. It’s not as bad as I expected it to be, it was just as confusing as I expected though! If you’ve thought about trying to do it, I would highly recommend you go for it.
As for my latest patent, well let’s talk about that in another post.