A better idea can reap financial reward for its inventor.
Liquid Paper, for example, was the brainchild of a secretary who felt she made too many typographical errors. Her eventual sale of the idea turned her into a millionaire many times over.
Consider Post-its, those handy little pieces of paper with adhesive that office workers slap on correspondence. Their inventor passed them out free to workers at 3M Corp. After the workers brought them to the attention of company top brass, it eventually resulted in a fortune for the inventor.
A patent is a grant of property right by the U.S. government to an inventor, which blocks anyone else from making, using or selling it without the inventor's permission. A utility patent is granted for 17 years, while a design patent covering the appearance of a manufactured item lasts 14 years. The U.S. patent and copyright laws have been around for more than 200 years.
Getting a patent and turning it into a success story is not as easy as it may sound.
"A patent doesn't ensure success, for it's only as good as the content of that patent and the marketing ability of the patent holder," said Maurice Hiles, president of the Technology 2000 Inc. plastics firm in Munroe Falls, Ohio.
Hiles has more than 60 patents to his name, among them the plastic used in the insoles of athletic shoes. While these patents have brought him millions of dollars, he was bucking the odds.
Two-thirds of all patents requested are eventually granted, the process typically taking 18 months before a final decision. More than 100,000 patents are issued annually.
"The most common mistake inventors make is not getting an attorney to do the complicated work of requesting a patent, for the more commercially important the invention turns out to be, the more that patent will be challenged," said Harry F. Manbeck, U.S. commissioner of patents and trademarks.
Manbeck cautions about firms that advertise their services to help first-time inventors market their inventions. Check out such a company by contacting the Better Business Bureau to find the company's success rate and charges.
By writing to the Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks, Washington, D.C., 20231, you can receive information and forms needed to file for a patent. That office also will give you the address of the nearest branch of the U.S. Patent Office so you can make sure your invention isn't a duplication.
The free booklet, "Basic Facts About Patents," is available if you request it in writing from the Patent and Trademark Office. A more extensive pamphlet titled "General Information Concerning Patents" is available if you send a $2 check or money order payable to the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.
Keep careful notes on everything as you develop your invention, including correspondence and telephone calls.
"Most important step early on is to take notes and write down information about the invention on sheets of paper, signing and dating them before witnesses," advised John R. Kirk Jr., a Houston-based patent attorney who is chairman of the inventors committee of the American Bar Association.