For some companies, ideas are just as important as the products they produce. But navigating intellectual property laws and finding the money to patent those ideas is sometimes a daunting challenge for entrepreneurs and small-business owners.
The Howard County Business Resource Center is developing a resource to help inventors through all the hoops - from getting basic information on patents to helping license the technology so that others can manufacture the product.
The Intellectual Property Advisory Service, run by Nancy Gebhart, who worked in the Office of Technology Commercialization at University of Maryland, College Park, is scheduling a series of seminars and networking opportunities, consulting with local inventors and searching for grants to help businesses cover the expenses of the patenting process.
Michael Haines, senior vice president of small-business development at the center, said many people approach the center with questions about patents and copyrights.
"The two primary questions are: `Where do I get money?' and `How do I protect my intellectual property?'" Haines said. "People are looking for this right now, and we want something really proactive."
Patent law can be tricky, and obtaining a patent is expensive - and could get more costly.
A bill in the House of Representatives seeks to increase government fees for a basic patent from about $8,000 to $12,000. Fees for more complicated applications could run $20,000 or more, according to Michael Kirk, executive director of the American Intellectual Property Law Association, which opposes the bill.
He said that although the costs are significant, it can be even more expensive to start down the road of developing a product - or worse, commercializing one - without the proper protection.
"Without getting some protection for your invention, it's free for anybody to copy and use," he said. "Whatever your investment has been is totally at risk without some type of patent protection."
Novices in the field of patent law need most to understand how the system works, Kirk said.
"They need to understand what a patent can do for you, that is, protect a good invention from being copied by others," he said.
"What it can't do is guarantee sales for an invention that is not particularly attractive to the market. Without doing a little market research before you get too far in, you can be disappointed."
Gebhart is trying to help inventors with those issues.
The Ellicott City resident, who spent seven years helping researchers document and prepare their patent applications, knows the process well. Now that she is retired, though, she is spending her time volunteering at the resource center, which is five minutes from her home.
Gebhart is planning monthly seminars, to begin in September, that will give an overview of the patent application process and costs associated with it.
One of the sessions will offer business owners and inventors an opportunity to meet with local patent attorneys.
As she plans the seminar, Gebhart said, she also is looking for grants and other funding sources that would help business owners offset attorney and application fees.
"What I've been hearing is [that] people didn't have money," she said. "They're afraid to invest in a patent if they don't know if they are going to recoup the costs."
In the future, she said, she hopes to be able to help inventors find manufacturers to license their technology so the inventors do not have the burden of manufacturing and marketing a product.
"It's important to make that information available to others," she said. "There's another option besides having a great idea. The center has the capability to provide information."