Protect your business idea before you patent

The patent process is lengthy, complicated and expensive. So how can an inventor or small business owner move forward with an innovation? Eventually you’re going to have to share your idea with someone who will help develop it, manufacture it, or otherwise bring it to market.

Here are three legal tools you can use, with assistance from an attorney:

  • Work-for-hire agreement: When you hire someone to help develop your innovation, a work-for-hire agreement establishes that you own all progress and improvements. Anything they do to contribute to your product, you own. Contributing individuals must still be listed on future patent applications, but they will have no ownership rights to your invention.
  • Non-compete agreement: Employees and contractors should sign a non-compete agreement that prevents them from starting (or working for) a business that threatens yours.
  • Non-disclosure agreement: Before you disclose product information, require consultants and vendors to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Such an agreement prohibits them from sharing information about your innovation with a third-party.

Beyond these legal agreements, you may file for a provisional patent application, available from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The USPTO has an application assistance unit and an inventors’ assistance center which can answer general questions, send you the necessary forms and provide non-legal assistance.