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To Patent or Not To Patent; It Depends.

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

It's been a while since we talked about patents here and yet inventors wanting to know how to take their creations to market, continue to contact us fairly regularly. 

"Everything that Can Be Invented Has Been Invented" 

This quote is generally attributed to Charles H. Duell, commissioner of US patent office in 1899 although the quote’s origin is unclearOne researcher found the quote in an 1899 issue of a comedy magazine, “Punch” in an article about the oncoming new centuryAccording to a publication called “Government Technology” in August of 2011, the 8-millionth patent was issued; indeed, everything had not been invented. 

A Patent is Not the "Gold Standard" 

Being awarded a patent after coming up with a new idea or invention and navigating through a long and expensive process is often viewed at the “gold standard” of the legitimacy of the idea or inventionFor many new inventors, the goal of patenting the idea or invention has been at the top of their listThe thinking is that the patent will both validate the idea and protect the inventor from the theft or copying of the ideaWhile there are no clear-cut guidelines pertaining to when or even if to patent a new idea or invention, the patent should almost never be at the top of the list.  

A Patent Is Not Iron-Clad Protection 

Contrary to many beliefs, from a practical standpoint, the patent does not offer iron-clad protection against theft and copying for several reasonsFirst, while the cost of getting the patent--$5,000 to $60,000—is very high, the cost of litigation to stop a patent infringement could be ten times that amountSecond, many times clever copiers can create a product that performs the same function, with just enough design changes to avoid infringement.  

A Patent is Not Market Validation 

At the same time, government employees at the patent office deeming the new idea worthy of a patent, does not always translate to market validation; that anyone wants to buy the new productA local banker tells a story of an out-of-state inventor that spent his life savings and mortgaged his house to develop and patent a more accurate rain gage—it leaned into the wind to catch more of the dropsHe had paid for scientific data proving his device was more accurateThe only problem was that no one cared enough to be willing to buy it.  

Don't Let Lack of Patent Stop You 

I know of at least one and maybe two inventors that have put their projects on the shelf because they don’t have the money to apply for a patentIt’s too bad that they may never know whether their product would add value for anyone in the marketplace or notMaybe it would be better to develop what we call a minimum viable product that would be functional enough to test market to see if anyone wants it even at a small risk of someone “stealing” the idea. 

We have available an inventor who has brought dozens of products to market over the past thirty years. Some he has patented, some he has not. He's defended one of his patents and successfully persuaded a large corporation to quit infringing. He can help with the process of bringing a new product to market, including answering the question "to patent or not to patent." His help and coaching are available through our Growth Accelerator program. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at or Twitter @jimcorrellks. 


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