Experts Can Help 1st Time Inventers

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PatentThomas Edison famously said “genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.”

Perhaps Edison should have carved out a couple of percentage points for figuring out how to get a patent on an ingenious invention.

For first-time inventors, doing so can be a daunting process.

But there is help available.

Vindi Sedey and his wife, Shefali, recently launched Richardson, Texas-based iChair to make cases for smart phones and tablets.

But Vindi, who previously worked in real estate, was a patent rookie.

“It was a little overwhelming,” he said.

He went to one of the regular monthly meetings of the Texas Inventors’ Association to seek advice.

Robert Wise, president of the group, immediately counseled him to talk to a patent attorney.

Other patent experts offer similar advice to first-time inventors, as does the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

“I would absolutely encourage individual inventors to work with a patent attorney, whether it’s a solo practitioner or a firm,” said Bill Munck, a patent lawyer with Dallas’ Munck Carter LLP.

Hiring a patent attorney to secure a patent can cost as much as $10,000 for a utility patent, the most common form.

A utility patent covers “any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof,” according to the patent office.

The less common alternative is a design patent, which covers “a new, original and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.”

Sedey applied for a design patent for his first case, and he estimated that it cost about $2,000 altogether.

Wise, a former patent examiner with the patent office, said knowing the different types of patents is just one of the skills needed to navigate the process.

He noted that many of the patent companies that advertise on TV and elsewhere take advantage of inventors who aren’t aware of that complexity.

“In my experience, I have never yet met a single person who has benefited by an invention marketing company,” Wise said. “And I have met a lot of people who paid a lot of money to one of those companies and got nothing in return.”

Many invention companies charge the full $10,000 an inventor might pay for a utility patent but only secure a design patent, Wise said.

Also, the companies often promise detailed marketing plans and to contact large companies that might be interested in licensing the invention.

But the marketing plans are often basic, outdated templates, and the corporate contacts involve nothing more than spam e-mails that are usually ignored.

The patent office has warnings on its website about the prevalence of these scams and offers a list of companies that have been investigated or fined by the Federal Trade Commission.

The large fees and long wait times for securing a patent can push many inventors to unscrupulous patent firms. But experts say inventors are better off negotiating with their patent lawyer.

Munck said good patent attorneys are in the business of making sure that interesting new ideas and inventions get to market.

“As a lawyer, you shouldn’t be representing a start-up if you’re in it for an immediate payday,” he said. “The relationship really has to be one of true counselor as opposed to being a necessary evil.”

Munck said he’ll generally find a way to work with a client who has a cool invention and determination to succeed, even if payment has to wait.

Munck Carter worked with McKinney, Texas-based Words With Friends maker Newtoy Inc. to get a patent on its popular online game.

Munck said brothers Paul and David Bettner displayed the passion that most patent attorneys realize can result in a payoff down the road.

“If somebody comes to you with an invention they’re excited about, if you care about your craft, you’re going to be excited about it,” Munck said. “They’re bringing you what they consider their baby, and you should want to see it the same way. That’s our job.”

Finding that sort of patent attorney takes time.

The patent office has a database on its website of attorneys with licenses to practice before the office.

Users can look up an individual attorney by name or just search for licensed experts by city or ZIP code.

Armed with a list of attorneys, the best bet is to start calling numbers, talking to lawyers and finding one with the expertise and enthusiasm for your invention.

“Once you have a relationship with a patent attorney, whoever filed your patent work, then it becomes so much easier,” iChair’s Vindi Sedey said.

Even a patent attorney can’t promise a quick result, though.

The patent office noted in February that it currently takes an average of 35 months to process a patent application, a number the office hopes to trim to 20 months by 2015.

In 2009, the latest year for which data is available, the patent office received 482,871 applications.

Although that was down from a peak of 484,955 in 2007, the general trend is a steep increase. Patent applications totaled 288,811 in 1999, for example.

In response, the office is hiring hundreds of examiners.

Even so, inventors need lots of patience.

Wise noted that Abraham Lincoln is the only U.S. president to ever get a patent, issued in 1849 for a buoy system for lifting river ships over sandbars and shoals.

When Lincoln filed for his patent, he got a response in six months.

“It would be nice if we could go back to six-month wait times,” Wise said. “But it’s just not going to happen anytime soon.”

Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.