Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Have I forfeited my patent by disclosing it to a company?

Dear Rich: Last night I emailed a small company about an idea I had about a product I thought they should make. This morning I received an email from them thanking me for the suggestion. Then I realized that I should have patented the idea and tried to license it to them. Have I forfeited the right to patent it by disclosing it to them? If I file a provisional patent before they file either a provisional or nonprovisional patent on the product, do I maintain the rights to the product? I'm so glad you asked. The short answers to your questions are: (1) "No, you haven't forfeited the right to seek a patent, (although you have started the clock ticking)," and (2) "As long as you can prove you invented it and you meet other patent requirements, you retain the rights to your invention regardless of whether the company files a patent application." 

Hmm. That's annoying isn't it? The answers are supposed to be short but they end up being kind of long ... sort of like my recent root canal. Ennyway. You have one year from any publication, public use, public sale, or offer to sell your invention, in which to file a patent application or provisional patent application (PPA). (If you file a PPA, you will then have one year from that filing date to file a regular patent application). So if you disclosed the novel and nonobvious aspects of your invention -- that is the patentable stuff -- and if you don't file a regular patent application or a PPA within one year of your public disclosure or offer to sell, then the invention passes into the public domain and cannot be patented. 

Although you haven't lost your ability to patent, you probably forfeited any claim to any disclosed concepts or ideas as trade secrets. Since the U.S. is still a "first-to-invent" country (the only one, actually),  you don't have to worry about a race to the patent office (although the Dear Rich staff reports that many U.S. patent attorneys still follow the maxim, "file early and file often.") In any event, as we've pointed out before, a patent application must be filed in the name of the inventor (that's you, right?), so the other company will commit fraud if it does not list you accordingly. 

What's the best way to solicit a company with an invention idea? Ideally, obtain a nondisclosure agreement. If that's not possible, make disclosures in stages, avoiding disclosing anything patentable or any trade secrets until absolutely necessary. Hopefully, if you can build up some credibility, you can then obtain an NDA, an evaluation agreement -- or even an option agreement. For more on these concepts, check out my book, Profit From Your Idea. If you're in a hurry to file a PPA, check out Nolo's Provisional Patent Application or check out this interesting new patent-filing startup site by Rocky Kahn.