Protecting an Idea: Can Ideas Be Patented or Protected? (2023)

Protecting an Idea: Can Ideas Be Patented or Protected? (1)Many people ask:can ideas be patented? The short answer is no. Unfortunately, despite what you may have heard from late night television commercials, there is no effective way to protect an idea with any form of intellectual property protection. Copyrights protect expression and creativity, not innovation. Patents protect inventions. Neither copyrights or patents protect ideas. This is not to suggest that ideas are not valuable, but they are not valuable in the same way or sense that pop culture has led many to believe.

It is, of course, axiomatic that an idea is an essential first step toward any invention. Nothing can or will happen without an idea, so in one sense ideas are a critical, and valuable, piece to the overall innovation equation. In and of themselves, however, ideas are not monetarily valuable. Without some identifiable manifestation of the idea there can be no intellectual property protection obtained and no exclusive rights will flow.

Without any protection, whether actual (i.e., in the form of an issued patent) or perceived (i.e., in the form of a pending patent application that defines the invention and could if pursued mature into an issued patent), ideas are free. Absent patent protection or a confidentiality agreement that accepts an obligation not use or disclose an idea – which are extremely difficult if not impossible to obtain with only an idea – the idea can be taken and used without payment.

Protecting an Idea: Can Ideas Be Patented or Protected? (2)

While confidentiality agreements, or non-disclosure agreements as they are sometimes called, are absolutely essential for inventors in the early stages to protect their idea, the problem is they are only going to provide protection with respect to those who have accepted the confidentiality obligation. And if and when the confidentiality obligation is broken you only have a claim for breach of contract (i.e., breach of the confidentiality agreement), but the trade secret that was your invention will no longer be a secret. So, before you would be tempted to believe there is a broad based way to protect an idea without it maturing into an invention that can be patented, or even an invention without a patent, you need to consider spend time to understand the purposes and limitations of confidentiality agreements (see hereandhere) and trade secrets (see here, here and here).

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This does not mean that inventors, or those who aspire to become inventors, should give up at the idea stage when the realization is made that there is only an idea present without some identifiable manifestation, but it does mean that more work is necessary in order to flesh out the idea and bring it across the idea innovation boundary. The goal is to get to the point where the idea it is concrete enough to be more than what the law would call a mere idea.

The moral of the story is that mere ideas cannot be protected, so inventors need to think in terms of an invention. Inventions can be patented. Ideas cannot be patented. So, you do not have an idea, you have an invention, or you will have an invention if you continue on your journey and don’t give up. You just need to get from the idea that inevitably begins the process to an invention, which is the culmination of the innovation part of the journey. And once the culmination of the innovation journey is realized then it becomes time to file a patent application.

As one contemplates moving from idea to invention to patent and ultimately, hopefully riches, a dose of reality is in order. First, stop thinking you will get rich by selling your ideato industry and sitting back and collecting royalty checks for doing nothing. That may be what late-night TV commercials want you to believe, but it is not reality. If inventing were as easy as thinking up an idea and riches would follow practically everyone would be a rich inventor! Ideas are a dime a dozen. They are valuable because they are a necessary part of the innovation journey, but it is not the idea in and of itself that creates monetary value, rather the valuable proposition inventors provide those interested in buying or licensing invention rights is found in the solution.

Inventors make money by identifying a problem, formulating an idea about how that problem can be solved, and then creating a solution. For example, the observation that using a snow shovel to clear snow is a back-breaking endeavor is obvious to anyone who has ever shoveled snow. The desire or belief that there has to be a better way to remove snow from a residential driveway is likewise not revolutionary, or particularly valuable. The idea that a mechanized solution would make the process faster, easier and cause fewer muscle injuries is a good one, but without the offer of any kind of solution the mere idea that a mechanized solution would be fantastic doesn’t create any value. But if you were the first person actually able to build a mechanized solution that would throw (or blow) the snow off a driveway you would have an invention that could be patented, and one that could be quite valuable in the hands of the right licensee. Perhaps royalty checks would roll in, but would it be for doing nothing? That mailbox income that might show up every quarter for years is attributed to the work done to create a valuable solution to the problem. The idea matured into an identifiable manifestation that was valuable in the hands of another. An inventor’s dream, but hardly money for doing nothing, although the inventor’s work is frontloaded in this monetization scenario.

Figure 1 from U.S. Patent No. 3,921,315

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Essentially, what inventors need to do is identify a problem, formulate the idea and then work toward finding a solution. The above example of a snow blower is an illustration of a common inventive idea becoming a reality by identifying a task that can be made easier with a new device. The snow blower pictured here was patented on November 25, 1975 and is titled Snow Blower Safety Chute.The improvement here is with respect to element 22, the safety chute. The patent explains that despite manufacturer warnings people injure themselves every year because when they attempt to clean out the compacted snow from the discharge chute, they do not stop the engine. Thus, the inventor’s desire was to prevent injuries because a certain number of people – perhaps many – won’t follow safety directions despite being warned.

The idea was to create a chute that could be safely cleared while the engine was still running. The solution was the use of prongs extending downward into a portion of the chute, which could be manipulated by the user to loosen the packed snow safely while the engine was still running. The valuable proposition is the solution to the problem, not the identification of the problem, which the manufacturers knew about because warnings not to clear the discharge chute with the engine running were included.

(Video) How to Protect Your Idea (everything you need to know)

Many people will come up with ideas, you’ve no doubt heard many friends and family talk about their invention ideas. I need a tool that does X, why hasn’t someone thought of Y, this would be better if only it did Z. For most people that is as far as they get, but inventors will go farther, but sometimes will still find themselves getting stuck in the idea phase. If that happens don’t just throw in the towel. Many good many inventors will become stuck in the idea phase from time to time, so if that is where you are you are not alone.

First, it may surprise you to learn that you just think you are stuck in the idea phase and you might actually have an invention without even knowing it yet. United Statespatent lawsdo not require you to have a prototype in order to apply for a patent, all that is required is that you be able to describe the invention so that others could make and use it. So, while you do need to have some kind of identifiable manifestation, you can start by proving your concept on paper.

With some guidance to coax out your idea you might actually have more than you think. For example, with the help of someone familiar with CAD and can help you create detailed 2D drawings and 3D renderings of what you are thinking about, you might soon realize you have an invention and not a mere idea. For example, Enhance Product Developmentworks with inventors to help them turn their inventions into reality, but they also work with those who are on the path toward becoming inventors and who need help at the ideation or concept stage.

Many people will have great ideas, but what separates those who can turn their ideas into money from those who cannot is a strategy to define the idea with enough specificity so that it can become an asset that can ultimately be protected. To profit from your idea you must package it so that it is something the law will recognize as protectable.

If you are having difficulty moving out of the idea phase and into the invention phase take a look atMoving From Idea to PatentandAbout the Invention Process. These articles will provide some insights and help you formulate a plan for reaching the invention stage, which is where you want to be in order to commercialize and monetize your ideas. TheInvent + Patent System™can also help. TheInvent + Patent System™is an innovative approach to the patent process that assists inventors in drafting their ownprovisional patent application.TheInvent + Patent System™has also been effectively used to coax inventors into formulating their ideas in a more tangible way so that the concepts move from a pure idea into something descriptive enough to be legally viewed as an invention.

(Video) How To Protect Your Ideas - Patents!

I also encourage all inventors and would-be inventors to read One Simple Idea: Turn Your Dreams into a Licensing Goldmine, which is an excellent book writtenbyStephen KeyofInvent Right. Although the title may sound like it contradicts some I’ve written above, Key is also the author of Sell Your Ideas With or Without a Patent, which is another a must read. Key preaches filing provisional patent applications to create perceived ownership (a term I’ve adopted from him). I’ve long been a fan of provisional patent applications, which have only become more important now that the U.S. has become a first inventor to file system.

First to file has to be interpreted as file first, which makes filing provisional patent applications quickly after an idea has matured into an invention is absolutely critical. Of course, a poorly prepared and hastily filed provisional patent application will provide little or no benefit. For more information on provisional patent applications please see:

  • Provisional Applications: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
  • Provisional Patents: What are they and why do you need them?
  • The Benefits of a Provisional Patent Application

Protecting an Idea: Can Ideas Be Patented or Protected? (5)

For more information on patent application drafting please see:

Happy inventing!

(Video) Can I Patent My Idea? Is My Idea Patentable? (Everything You Need To Know)

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Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of Read more.


Is it possible to protect an idea? ›

About patents

According to statute, any person who "invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent" from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. To protect your invention, you must apply for a patent.

Can you have a patent for an idea? ›

The simple answer is no—you cannot patent an idea for an invention. The invention itself has to be produced or a patent application containing the invention must be filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). While all inventions start with an idea, not every idea can be called an invention.

How do you patent and protect an idea? ›

First, you can file a provisional patent application (if your invention is patentable). Second, you can use a nondisclosure agreement (regardless of whether it is patentable). (Remember that inventors do not always need to license their invention in order to make money.

Can ideas be protected by copyright? ›

How do I protect my idea? Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work.

Can you protect an idea as intellectual property? ›

Copyright protection

Copyright protects the expression, in a fixed form, of a business idea and not the idea itself. Thus, neither the Copyright Act nor common law will help protect your business idea based on copyright.

What are the 4 ways of protecting your ideas? ›

Four types of intellectual property are patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. Intellectual property rights are given to inventors, businesses, and authors to protect inventions, brands, valuable information, and works of authorship.

What makes an idea patentable? ›

To be patentable, the invention must be statutory, novel, useful, and non-obvious. Certain requirements, such as novelty and non-obviousness, may involve conducting a preliminary patent search with the assistance of an attorney or agent.

When should you patent an idea? ›

Under U.S. patent law, you must file your patent application within one year of the first offer to sell your invention, or within one year of your first public use or disclosure of your invention. This means that you must determine the first offer to sell date, or the first public disclosure date.

Can you patent an idea and sell it? ›

A patent is an important document which grants ownership to an invention. However, simply owning a patent won't generate a dime for the inventor. To profit from your idea, you must sell the patent, license usage rights, or market the product yourself.

How do you protect a business idea? ›

protect your business name by filing a trademark. This will prevent others from offering a similar service under a similar name; be the first to market with your service, with strict quality control to generate a reputation in your trademarked name; and.

How do you protect a brand idea? ›

How to Protect a Business Idea
  1. Federal or State Registration. ...
  2. Non-Disclosure Agreements. ...
  3. Non-Compete and Non-Solicitation Agreements. ...
  4. Work-for-Hire Agreements. ...
  5. Provisional Patents. ...
  6. Trade Secrets Law. ...
  7. Use Secure Communication. ...
  8. Timestamp Your Ideas.
Nov 30, 2020

How long does a patent Protect your idea? ›

A patent protects an invention by allowing its inventor — or the group who owns the patent — control over who may use the invention. Patent applications are adjudicated by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and are valid for 20 years. An assignee is a person or group who owns a patent.

Why are ideas not protected by copyright? ›

What copyright law protects is the expression of ideas. The underlying reason for this is that ideas are part of the public domain and therefore no one can have a monopoly in an idea. This basic copyright principle applies no matter how novel or great an idea may be.

What is the difference between patent and copyright? ›

A patent protects new inventions, processes, or scientific creations, a trademark protects brands, logos, and slogans, and a copyright protects original works of authorship.

What are protection methods? ›

There are three basic methods of protection—explosion containment, segregation and prevention.

What are the 4 methods of protecting innovation and creativity? ›

The main tools for protecting original and innovative ideas and practices are intellectual property (IP) rights. These rights include: patents, copyright, designs and trade secrets.

Can you sue someone for stealing your idea? ›

Copyright rights protect the expression of an idea, not the idea itself. To claim copyright infringement, you have to show that you own copyright rights in the work and that the other person reproduced the work without permission.

What kind of ideas are not patentable? ›

Abstract ideas, mathematical equations, laws of nature, basic computer processes, and natural phenomena are not patentable.

What types of ideas Cannot be patented? ›

What cannot be patented?
  • a discovery, scientific theory or mathematical method,
  • an aesthetic creation,
  • a scheme, rule or method for performing a mental act, playing a game or doing business, or a computer program,
  • a presentation of information,

What kind of ideas can be patented? ›

An invention can be patented if it has a useful purpose, has patentable subject matter, is novel, and is non-obvious. The patent could cover a composition, production process, machine, tool, new plant species, or an upgrade to an existing invention.

What three criteria make an idea patentable? ›

Patent Requirements
  • The invention must be statutory (subject matter eligible)
  • The invention must be new.
  • The invention must be useful.
  • The invention must be non-obvious.

What happens if someone patents your idea? ›

Can Someone Patent Another Person's Idea? The only way you can sue for patent infringement is if you have a patent through the USPTO. 102(f) states that in order to apply for a patent, you must be the inventor. Proving this can be difficult and costly.

How much does it cost to patent my idea? ›

While the costs of an application vary depending on the representation, the total costs run from $5000 to $8000. These costs incorporate attorney's fees associated with drafting and filing the patent, as well as USPTO filing fees. These fees typically cost between $360 and $720, with examination fees totaling $170.

Can you sell just an idea? ›

Yes, you can sell an idea to a company without a patent. However, the company needs to enter into a contract such as a nondisclosure agreement (NDA). Otherwise, they can steal your idea. Unfortunately, many companies will not enter into an NDA.

Can you sell just an idea to a company? ›

What can you do? You can sell your business idea to big companies or investors that will pay you upfront and then take the item to market. This form of business model is called licensing.

Do you need a patent to sell an idea? ›

No. You are not required to obtain a patent in order to sell a product or service embodying your invention. Many products and services are sold that are not patented. A U.S. patent provides the right to stop others from making marketing, selling, or importing your invention in the United States.

Can someone steal an idea if it patent pending? ›

As soon as you file a patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), your invention is "Patent Pending." Once your application is submitted, nobody can steal, sell, or use your invention without your permission. If this happens, they are infringing on your patent, assuming it gets issued.

What are the 3 types of patents? ›

There are three types of patents - Utility, Design, and Plant. Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or compositions of matters, or any new useful improvement thereof.

Are ideas protected by trademark? ›

Only intellectual protection tools such as patents, designs or models, trademarks or copyrights can protect the materialization of an idea. The idea cannot be protected as such, but the means leading to this idea can be protected.

Does copyright protect ideas or expression? ›

Copyright protects only the expression of ideas, not the ideas themselves.

When should you not patent? ›

U. S. law provides you will lose your patent rights if you sell, offer for sale, publish, or publicly use your invention more than one year before filing a patent application on that invention.

How do you trademark an idea? ›

Ideas cannot be trademarked. A person who uses a trademark in commerce has some common law rights. A mark may also be federally registered in the PTO. Some states also offer their own trademark registration systems, although federal registration provides the most protection.

Which of the following may not be patented? ›

Complete answer: As per the patent Act, the ethical, political, and scientific bases cannot be patented such as the Discovery of the new object, its scientific theory, and mathematical calculation.

How much does it cost to patent an idea? ›

A patent attorney will usually charge between $8,000 and $10,000 for a patent application, but the cost can be higher. In most cases, you should budget between $15,000 and $20,000 to complete the patenting process for your invention. Previous: Why should you file a patent application? Next: Is your invention valuable?

What ideas Cannot be patented? ›

What can't be patented?
  • literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works.
  • a way of doing business, playing a game or thinking.
  • a method of medical treatment or diagnosis.
  • a discovery, scientific theory or mathematical method.
  • the way information is presented.
  • some computer programs or mobile apps.
Dec 17, 2018

What ideas can not be patented? ›

What cannot be patented?
  • a discovery, scientific theory or mathematical method,
  • an aesthetic creation,
  • a scheme, rule or method for performing a mental act, playing a game or doing business, or a computer program,
  • a presentation of information,

Can I sell my idea without a patent? ›

No. You are not required to obtain a patent in order to sell a product or service embodying your invention. Many products and services are sold that are not patented. A U.S. patent provides the right to stop others from making marketing, selling, or importing your invention in the United States.

Can you patent an idea without a lawyer? ›

No, the use of an attorney or registered agent is not required for filing a patent application. However, an attorney or registered agent is often a useful resource and the USPTO recommends the use of such for preparing a patent application and conducting the proceedings in the USPTO.

What is the cheapest way to patent an idea? ›

A provisional patent application is considered a cheaper, short-term approach to patent protection. A provisional patent application expires 12 months after its filing. It gives the applicant a one-year period to compile the data necessary to file a non-provisional patent.

Is it hard to patent an idea? ›

Without question, getting a patent is an involved process, even a hard process. Many people hire a patent agent to guide them through difficult spots and argue for them regarding rejection lists.

Why ideas are not protected? ›

Are ideas protected by copyright law? It's a long-standing copyright law principle that they are not. What copyright law protects is the expression of ideas. The underlying reason for this is that ideas are part of the public domain and therefore no one can have a monopoly in an idea.

How do I patent an idea in USA? ›

Steps to Filing a Patent Application
  1. Keep a Written Record of Your Invention. Record every step of the invention process in a notebook. ...
  2. Make Sure Your Invention Qualifies for Patent Protection. ...
  3. Assess the Commercial Potential of Your Invention. ...
  4. Conduct a Thorough Patent Search. ...
  5. Prepare and File an Application With the USPTO.

Can someone steal my idea if I have a patent pending? ›

As soon as you file a patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), your invention is "Patent Pending." Once your application is submitted, nobody can steal, sell, or use your invention without your permission. If this happens, they are infringing on your patent, assuming it gets issued.


1. Protecting Your Idea as Easy as 1-2-3
2. Protecting My Idea Without a Patent - Patent Strategy
(Product Design)
3. Need to Protect Your Inventions? Kevin Prince of Quick Patents Can Help
4. How Patents Protect Ideas — Or Not
5. You Don't Need a Patent to License an Idea
6. How to Protect Your Idea (The 4 Different Types of Intellectual Property)
(Bold Patents - Intellectual Property & Patent Law!)
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