Monday, May 6, 2013

My Partner Patented My Idea!

Dear Rich: While I was in school, I came up with an idea for a product that allows you to get your car back from valet with a text message. I wrote a business proposal and found a partner. My partner started the company and we developed the product. I never signed any employment agreement, we never did any sort of paperwork for ownership of the company (he was a family friend), and he applied for the patent with his name and the company name. All was fine until a disagreement between us led to me leaving the company. Now he refuses to acknowledge my claim to the company (though I have him acknowledging my co-ownership in an email), and his name is on the patent for my idea. Obviously I learned my lesson about getting everything in writing, but do I have any recourse as far as challenging or becoming a co-owner? We're not clear whether your patent was granted or whether you're referring to an application still in progress. We're also not patent lawyers so we can't comment on the novelty or nonobviousness of your text message/valet system. But few applications fly through the patent process, so if a patent has not been granted (and we're not referring to provisional patent applications), we'd suggest that you search the USPTO website to determine where, in the patent food chain, the patent is currently located and to verify that you are not listed as a co-inventor. You need to also assess accurately what your contribution was. The more specific and detailed your contribution the stronger your position. But if all you provided was the one-sentence idea as in the question, above, the weaker your claim to invention co-ownership.
Can you afford the fight? Assuming you have a strong claim, you're going to need a patent attorney in order to validate your claim to co-ownership. (You'll need a patent attorney because you will need someone familiar with the the patent process and with claims such as patent fraud.) It's possible (though not likely), that if you have a really strong financial claim, you can find an attorney who will work on contingency. Before you proceed, consider the financial outcome. You don't want to spend more money on lawyers than you'll earn from your patent.

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