Just an Idea, or a True Invention?
The question of whether an idea can be patented or not initially hinges upon a single determining factor: whether it’s just an idea, or if it’s an actual invention. If you have built a prototype of your invention, then you’ve met this threshold.
If you haven’t built a prototype, then you can determine whether it’s an idea or actual invention based on this question:
If someone had a garage with an unlimited array of tools and materials, would you be able to provide a builder with the instructions necessary to build the invention? If so, then you have an actual invention. If not, then it’s just an idea, which is unpatentable.
However, keep in mind that even if you do have a true invention, it may turn out to be unpatentable. The reason for this is that the vast majority of inventions have never been manufactured. But while these patents may never have been realized as actual products, they are still in force. Some industries are more impacted by this issue than others.
One good example of an industry rich with dead patents is golf accessories. In recent years, many golf enthusiasts have come up with golf-related products that turn out to have already been patented in the 1950s and ‘60s.
There are few things more disheartening than learning that you aren’t the first inventor to come up with an idea, but that is the inherent downside of the patent process.
When in Doubt, Build a Prototype
Even if you do have very detailed instructions for the construction of a prototype, it’s still advisable to actually build a prototype before considering a patent. The reason for this is that, inevitably, you will run into issues that require fixing or refinement in order to create a workable prototype.
The refinement process helps to delineate the gap between existing products and yours, and it is in this gap that novelty worthy of a patent is usually found. Quite often, it is these adjustments and refinements to an initial concept that turn out to be the most patentable aspects of an invention.
Complements vs. Substitutes
Inventions generally fall into one of two categories: substitutes and complements.
A substitute is a new or improved way of doing something that an existing product already does (i.e. a better mousetrap). However, substitutes usually fail to gain much traction in the market, and usually fail to justify the cost of a patent, let alone turn a profit.
There are many reasons for this, but it boils down to a few key issues:
One, your substitute invention is likely a variant on existing patents. This means that it will be much more challenging to identify truly novel structures and features that are patentable. Sometimes inventors run into trouble because their invention in fact turns out to be simply a fusion of existing inventions. Welding an egg beater to a coffeemaker doesn’t result in a unique, patentable invention, just because nobody’s done it before. There has to be an addition to the combination that is entirely original, and it is that original element that will be patentable. Simple combinations are not.
Two, you’re entering into a saturated market that already has competitors, most of them much larger than yours. Your mouse trap may be the greatest mouse trap ever made, but customers will typically still gravitate towards the good old reliable Victor Mouse Trap they’ve been buying for a hundred years.
Three, because your invention will probably fail to gain traction in that impacted market, it’s unlikely that the big companies in your market will choose to buy your patent from you. If your patent has failed to generate revenue for you, then it’s unlikely that it will do so for them (at least to an appreciable degree beyond the revenue their existing products generate).
That brings us to complements. Complements are typically additions to existing inventions, ideas, or concepts, usually in the form of accessories. Laser gunsights, phone cases with built-in solar chargers, boat hulls, and bicycle bells are all examples of patentable complement inventions. In some cases they would be more easily sold on their own, while in others a manufacturer might incorporate the invention into the design of a product which the invention is an accessory to. But in either case, they are add-ons that improve the functionality of an existing product.
Complement inventions are typically much easier to patent and market, when compared to substitute inventions.