If you’ve invented something amazing, the next step is to get your idea patented before someone steals it, right? In short, yes; a patent can protect your idea from theft and create higher profit margins once your product goes to market. But not every invention qualifies for patent protection. And even if your invention does, will the finished product be commercially viable? The following steps can help you assess the commercial viability of your invention before applying for a patent.

Conduct patent research

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As useful and exciting as your invention may be, it’s possible that someone has already thought of it. Even if you haven’t come across a product like yours, a similar invention may have already been patented. A patent can exist without the finished product. As a safeguard, you can brainstorm various terms that might be used to describe your invention. These terms should be based on its purpose and use. Once you have a few ideas, search these terms to see if anything similar already exists. You will likely find multiple patents similar to your own invention—but don't get discouraged. Conduct an in-depth review of each relevant patent to see if there might still be differences. Pay special attention to additional drawings pages, specifications, and claims.

Create a prototype

Once your product has been patented, changing materials and any other aspects of the product is difficult. Therefore, it’s extremely important to have a basic prototype before you file for a patent. Be sure that your product is functional in the exact form you described in your patent application. The U.S. patent laws do not require a finished prototype before filing for a patent, but the invention must be described in such detail that a skilled individual can recreate your invention from the description in your patent application. Err on the side of caution and create your prototype before filing for a patent.

Conduct market research

Your invention may be functional, but if there’s no market, it may not be commercially viable. Doing this research before you file for a patent can save a lot of money—and heartache—in the future. Patents can be time-consuming and costly. Patent attorney Gene Quinn puts the cost of patenting even a simple invention in the thousands. Before investing that money, make sure your idea is worth it. Ask yourself the following questions: Who will buy your product? Where will they buy it—online, at events, retail stores, or trade shows? How will it be packaged? What will it cost? Who are your competitors? What makes your product unique? Along with your filing expenses and the search for competing inventions, an experienced patent attorney can help you assess what market, if any, may exist for your product after patenting. 

Determine the cost of manufacturing your product

You might have a large enough market, but what is that market willing to pay? If the cost to manufacture your product is greater than what the market will pay, you may have to go back to the drawing board. Visit manufacturers in your local area. Talk to people in the industry to learn about the costs involved with bringing your idea to life. You may be able to accomplish this with a simple phone call or email.

Consult with a professional 

According to S. Benjamin Pleune, a Charlotte-based attorney with Alston & Bird, any person or company assessing the commercial viability of an invention would be well advised to consult a patent attorney, and to do so as early in the process as possible.

“As an initial matter, certain disclosures, even private or confidential disclosures, can jeopardize the ability to later obtain patent protection," says Pleune. "And obtaining a patent is a complicated matter that begins with a technical description of the patent in a manner that is acceptable to the United States Patent & Trademark Office (the PTO), often involving extensive negotiation with the PTO regarding the scope of appropriate protection before the patent is issued. Involving a patent lawyer early so that he or she understands the technology and the intended scope of the invention will help the process proceed smoothly and help ensure that a high quality (and valuable) patent is granted by the PTO.”

After considering all of the above factors, if you think your idea is commercially viable, you may want to apply for patent protection. Not all inventions qualify for patent protection; in some cases, copyright or trademark protection is more appropriate. An experienced patent attorney can help you determine the best strategy for bringing your invention to the world.