Homemade Inventions Deserve Patents, Too
In my many encounters with inventors around the country, I find that many believe that patents may only be issued for completely new inventions. However, U.S. patent law does not require that a new product or process to resemble something from a science fiction movie; a useful modification or improvement of an existing device or process may also be worthy of patent protection. A patentable device or method need not be a high-tech gadget, either. For example, a few years back the New York Times featured an article entitled “If These Moms Can’t Find It, They Invent It”, concerning stay-at-home mothers who have invented their own household products. They saw the need for various products to assist in raising their kids, and when they realized that no such products were on the market, they designed the products themselves, and then set out to learn how to market the products to others.
The New York Times article did not dwell on issues of patent law, but patent law exists to protect the rights of persons who invent new products, by preventing others from copying those products without the permission of the inventor (or from using, marketing, selling or importing unlicensed copies). By protecting the right of the inventor to try to profit from his or her invention, patent law encourages the invention of new products because it creates a financial incentive for innovation.
As the New York Times article shows, an “inventor” need not necessarily be a scientist in a laboratory or a team of engineers. Even persons who create new products or processes at home, or who come up with novel ways to improve existing products or processes, may be pleasantly surprised to find their work is eligible for patent protection. Also, a new product does not need to be commercially available to be patented. In fact, if the product has been available for at least a year, then it cannot receive a patent (this rule is called the “on-sale bar”), so it is best to patent a product before attempting to market it or find a manufacturer. Once a patent has been granted, the serial number of that patent can be printed on the product or its packaging, which provides notice to potential infringers that the product is protected by a registered patent (this also means that a greater damages award can be obtained in the event that the inventor must file suit against an infringer).
If you have created a new product or process or improved an existing method or device, a patent attorney can help you determine whether applying for a patent would be worthwhile to protect your work.