Can Ideas Be Patented? (Spoiler Alert: NO!)
I hear this often from entrepreneurs: “Hi Randy, I need to patent protect my idea.” My response is always the same: “Can’t help you with that, because ideas can’t be protected by a patent.”
That’s usually met with a puzzled look from the entrepreneur.
But it’s true: IDEAS can’t be patented. But IMPLEMENTATIONS of those ideas absolutely can be protected by patents. (Well, most implementations can be protected by patents, but that’s a topic for another blog post.)
Let’s look at why this is the case.
IDEAS are broad concepts; things like automated facial recognition, genetic testing, gravity, gluten, etc.
None of those ideas—presented that broadly—are patentable.
But protecting the ways in which those ideas are implemented is the heart and soul of the patent system.
What do I mean by “implementation”?
Quite simply, by “implementation” I mean devices or methods that use ideas to solve specific problems. The patent system is designed to protect these innovations—these specific and practical improvements on the current way of doing things.
Take, for example, the “gluten” idea mentioned above. The patent system isn’t built to let one person own all rights to the broad idea of gluten. For starters, gluten just forms on its own by operation of natural laws and methods that have been around for centuries (mix water and flour together, then knead the resulting dough). As a result, it would be profoundly unfair to now let someone use the patent system to own all rights in the idea of gluten. (That person would be able to control all bread and pasta making operations with such a patent, even though bread and pasta were well-known long before this person came along.)
But, if that person discovers a way to mix water and flour, and maybe some other ingredients, in a way that forms a lot less gluten (or a lot more gluten) than nature would otherwise produce, then the patent system is set up to reward that innovator for developing a new and useful process. The innovator has applied the idea of gluten to a process for making bread or pasta or whatever, and has developed a solution to the problem of too much gluten (or too little gluten) produced by the normal methods of making dough.
So now that we’ve identified a patentable implementation of an idea, how do we go about filing for that patent protection?
Utility Patents: When Ideas Become Reality
There are several kinds of patents. However, when people talk about patents, they typically mean utility patents. These protect four types of things:
- A process-This is a combination of any steps or methods
- A machine-This is a combination of various parts.
- A manufacturer– A combination of materials used to produce a final product.
- A composition of matter– The matter could be a new chemical substance, like a drug or a formula.
However, most of these inventions fall under a combination of these different categories. For example, a telecommunication system may implement both processes and machines, or a new type of concrete may combine existing as well as entirely new chemicals. We may also write the patent application to protect multiple categories for the same invention. For example, if the invention is a new medicine, we will try to protect the new drug chemical itself, the mixtures of that new drug chemical with the other stuff that makes it into a pill form, and methods of treating patients with that new drug chemical or pill.
Some Patent Basics
Different industries and types of products may have separate requirements. However, all patents must:
- Describe in detail what the implementation of the idea is (what parts the invented device includes or what steps the invented method requires);
- Describe in detail how to make the invention or practice the method of the invention; and
- Describe in detail how to use the invention to solve the identified problem.
If those details aren’t included in the patent application when you file it, any patents you earn may be invalidated by your competitors.
Things to Focus On
When I write patent applications for my clients, I ask myself the following questions:
- What are the technological advances in this invention over what was known before my client created this?
- What is the problem my client was trying to solve?
- How do the components of the invented device work together to produce the solution to the identified problem? Or how doe the steps of the invented method operate to produce the solution to the identified problem?
- Are there other ways my client could have solved that problem with similar technological advances?
- What solutions did my client try to implement, but maybe didn’t work that well . . . or didn’t work at all?
- What other problems might this invention solve?
Asking these questions helps me make sure the patent applications Incubate IP files for our clients are complete and strong enough to make competitors think twice before developing similar technologies.
If you have an idea or an invention and are wondering about whether you can patent it, these are some of the things you need to keep in view. When you are unsure, it’s best to get some expert help on the matter. For more information, get in touch with Incubate IP today, and we will help you take the first steps towards securing your intellectual property.