How to figure out if you need to apply for a patent

A common fear among business owners is the thought of an idea being copied and claimed by someone else. Question is, how do you protect something as abstract as an idea?

That’s where patents come into the picture.

The common thread between many startups and small businesses in the tech space is that they all use their intellectual property (IP) to invent their solutions.

In order to protect this IP, the company needs to file for a patent.

Applying for a patent describes the process of copyrighting your IP – similar to the process of trade marking a logo.

READ: How to fortify your brand and your business in 5 simple steps

When a company files for a patent within its geographic jurisdiction, it’s applying to receive exclusive commercial rights to that innovative device, process or substance.

Depending on where your business is, there is normally a federal government body that grants patents.

In Australia, businesses need to register with IP Australia and in New Zealand, they register with The New Zealand IP Office.

Regardless of where you are, you’ll always find patent attorneys that see businesses through the process successfully.

To learn more about the ins and outs of patent applications, I reached out to patent attorney David Müller-Wiesner from Spruson & Ferguson.


You are probably better off with a patent


When asked if there were any circumstances where he would advise against going through the application process, Müller-Wiesner said that he found it “difficult to imagine” an instance in which a company would choose against protecting their innovative device or process.

So, it’s always safer to use protection.

There was only one instance in which this level of protection might not be the best use of business funds.

“We would advise against filing a patent application if the likely scope of protection and associated cost (in both dollars and information disclosure) is incompatible with the role of the patent in the business plan,” said Müller-Wiesner.


Balancing the cost of a patent


Let there be no mistake; filing for a patent is a very expensive process and normally requires the assistant of an expert.

Müller-Wiesner told The Pulse that the “single biggest challenge for SMEs” when it comes to applying for patents, is “balancing budget with obtaining sufficient protection when there are a number of business aspects competing for time and cost”.

Obtaining good advice on what level of protection your IP requires is critical for budgeting correctly.

Aside from the large cost associated with registering a patent in the country of your residence, if you have plans to expand your company globally, you’ll probably need to register for a patent in those jurisdictions as well – a process that is likely to cost you a pretty penny.

But the good news is that there are ways to bring down that cost.

For example, The Australian Trade and Investment Commission offers a rebate of up to 50 percent of international IP protection-related costs as part of the Export Market Development Grant – a scheme that helps thousands of Australian export businesses on a yearly basis.

READ: Are you an exporter? You may be leaving this grant on the table


Preparation is key


The patent application process is complex and lengthy, so adequate preparation before starting can do wonders for your application.

To improve the process, Müller-Wiesner suggested that the applicant answer the following three fundamental questions on which he described patent applications “live and breathe”:

  1. What technical solution is currently on the market?
  2. What are its problems?
  3. How does your product/service solve those problems?

Müller-Wiesner then went on to say that “documents with good answers to these questions foster cost-effectiveness in the preparation of an application.”

Another big part of preparing for a patent application is harnessing the ability to capture the company’s IP properly.

According to Müller-Wiesner, any system developed by the company – even if it’s as simple as an excel spreadsheet – ensures that the risks of not registering the IP, or registering and disclosing the IP, are consciously managed.

“The decision to file for a patent can easily be made at the wrong level,” said Müller-Wiesner.

“Unless an IP reporting culture exists, the company is taking unnecessary risks that can impact core business brands or technology.”


Investment, grants and more research


Aside from solid IP protection, there are a range of other benefits that applying for a patent can bring to a business.

Firstly, it makes your company more desirable to a potential investor.

If you’re a startup founder, chances are you’re in the market for some capital and one of the best ways to impress an investor is by showing them that you have a robust IP protection strategy.

READ: 5 ways to woo an investor

The same applies to many competitive government grant schemes. Ensuring that your IP is well protected can increase the likelihood of your business winning a competitive government grant.

Finally, applying for a patent tends to encourage the business to conduct extensive research and development in order to ensure that the IP they are developing is of a very high quality, and therefore patentable.

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