How to patent an idea and become an inventor

How do you know when your idea is just an idea, as opposed to an idea that you could patent and put to profitable use?

by Joe Runge, Esq.
updated January 27, 2023 ·  3min read

Halfway on your commute to work, you realize: You just can't take it anymore. You hate your job and it's just too much. Yet you can't just quit—you still have to pay the bills—so what are you going to fall back on? How are you going to make a living?

People around the world still make their livings as inventors. Many more use intellectual property that they create to start a big company or one that just pays the bills. You, too, can become an inventor, an entrepreneur, or some combination of the two. The first step is learning to recognize and protect your intellectual property—especially patents.

You don't have to pass the bar exam or become a patent attorney to know how to patent an idea. Learn to answer these three questions and you will be well on your way to identifying your inventions, using legal research to create a plan, and turning your inventions into your income.

1. Can you patent a concept?

Inventions can be too early or too conceptual to be patented. They can lack critical details or have large gaps in their descriptions that make getting an issued patent very, very difficult. The problem is that there is no clear test to determine when you should file your patent. Instead of wondering if you even have an invention, get to work and find out.

First, expand your mind. If you come up with a great new design for a tool handle, think hard about what makes it so great. Draw every alternative way that the handle design could look. Very often an invention is a concept, but it can be done different ways: The tool can be made out of different parts, the system can work with different components, or the process can occur in a different order.

Second, conduct a patent search. Inventors have better access to online databases of patents and publications now than at any other time in history. You may find that your general concept has been done before: Someone already thought to use carbon fiber to make a more durable kite, or there is already a patent pending for your heavy duty dog toy. Look around, and, if you find your invention has already been invented, move on and invent something new.

2. Do I need to get a patent?

Inventors don't always produce inventions. Innovative companies, like Uber and Twitter, despite copious spending in research and development, produce relatively few patents. Inventors make money on their intellectual property—which is more than patents.

If your invention is a new formula or process to make a machine, then consider keeping it secret. If your invention involves software code that you have authored, then you can rely on the copyright for your code. You can even trademark your service or product instead of protecting what is new and technical about your invention.

3. How do you patent an idea for a product and make money?

If you want to quit your job and become an inventor, you have to look beyond how to get a patent. Your patents have to cover products that people want to buy. To get a patent issued, an inventor needs only to demonstrate that the invention is new and useful. The patent office doesn't concern itself with whether your invention will cover a product that people will want to buy.

The difference between an inventor and a commercially successful inventor is not better or newer inventions—it is inventions that customers want to buy. Fortunately, the patent process lends itself to investigating if your invention is a product that someone will want to buy. If you need a patent, and if your invention has matured beyond a concept, then you need to put in the work and find out if your invention is a product people want.

File a provisional patent application. They're inexpensive and give you a year to conduct some market research. Ask your customers if they want your invention—or which version of your invention they want the most. Don't just settle for inventing something new and useful—invent something new, useful, and valuable. And, until then, don't quit your day job.

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Joe Runge, Esq.

About the Author

Joe Runge, Esq.

Joe Runge graduated from the University of Iowa with a Juris doctorate and a master of science in molecular evolution. H… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.