Money Matters

How Patents Work

You’ve come up with a problem and a solution, an “invention”... but now what do you do?

If you’ve worked for any length of time as a nail tech, you’ve made use of polishes, removers, ornaments, buffers, wraps, tips, and all the other paraphernalia that make up your skills and satisfactions. On the whole, you’ve enjoyed it. But there certainly were days when you wondered what it would take to come up with a better acrylic (one that was odourless), or a device that would dry nail polish in instant seconds (rather than four minutes), or a file that would last “forever,” or a product that would strengthen nails whether natural or artificial. On those days you thought maybe you should invent this new product yourself. Why not? Americans were ingenious. Didn’t someone eventually invent the aerosol spray? Nylons and zippers, too? You can’t imagine what it was like without safety pins and safety razors. *Your parents and grandparents will tell you. Be sure to ask them about the days before TV, radio, washing machines, refrigerators, air-conditioning, and whatever else around you that you take for granted.

The nail people years ago who invented polish, remover, buffers, tips, wraps, etc. were neither Einsteins nor Galileos. They were just plain folks who wanted to make things easier for themselves and more beautiful for their clients. Today, it’s your turn to improve things. When you come up with a problem and its solution---let’s call it an “invention” that saves time and money and does a better job at beautification---what should you do? You know your solution works you’ve tested it on yourself for months and on your friends and relatives---and they all approve. So what do you do? What’s your next step? As they say on the street, you just don’t give it away.

Possibly the answer is a patent. The government of the USA offers pertinent information at token cost to help you understand---

  • What a patent is and to help you decide---
  • Whether to apply for a patent
  • How to apply for a patent
  • How to promote your patent

If your hometown library classifies its collection according to the Dewey Decimal System, look at the books shelved at #608.7 and #346.048. They’ll elaborate on the brief information which this article offers.

What is a patent?

The word patent comes from the Latin patere, which means to lie open, to make known. In an older expression, letters patent meant a public document issued by a ruler or person in authority for recording some agreement, authorization, or privilege. From that phrase evolved our current expression (patent) which means a grant issued by the U.S. government giving you, the inventor, the sole right to make, use, or sell your invention, and to do so anywhere within the government’s jurisdiction. In return, you must pay a fee (moderate) and describe the invention sufficiently so that the government will know what it’s protecting. (Naturally, this description tells your competition what you’ve done and how you’ve done it...)

A patent is good for 17 years from the date on which it was granted. When it then expires, your invention32A patent is good for 17 years from the date on which it was granted. When it then expires, your invention belongs to anyone who wants to use it.

In order to obtain a patent, your invention must be both a new and useful process, product, or machine, or any new and useful improvement upon an already existing process, product, or machine. Of the items on your nail tech worktable, 99 percent fit into one of those three categories (Your invention could also be a new design for anything that can be manufactured---pertaining to nails, of course. Design patents last either three and a half, seven, or 14 years). Remember, too, that patents are neither copyrights nor trademarks, though all three receive government protection.

Patents are issued by the Commissioner of Patents in Washington D.C. 20231. From the time your application is sent to the Patent Office until a patent has been issued, your invention is protected by the expressions patent pending and patent applied for. These two expressions cannot be used unless you have actually made a proper application for a patent. A proper application (on forms, of course, supplied by the Patent Office) consists of a fee, a specific description of your invention and a statement of what it claims to do, a drawing and/or model (if necessary) of the invention, and a sworn declaration that you, and only you, are the sole inventor.

The fee is multiple: $65 for the initial filing-fee plus various additional charges depending on how the application is presented. When and if the patent is granted, there’s another fee of $100 (the “issue” fee) plus certain printing charges (You’re close to $200 by now.)

The Patent Office gives no advice as to whether or not you should apply for a patent. Because there are thousands of patents on file (some are still in force, and some have expired) it is useless for you to apply for a patent if the protection on a similar or identical invention is still valid, or if the protection has already expired (in that case, yours is no invention at all but merely an unsuspected duplication of another invention, your “invention” cannot be patented). It is, therefore, in your best interest to look for previous patents in the public Search Room of the Patent Office at Crystal Plaza, 2021 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington, VA. Complete sets of American (and many foreign) patents are kept there. Several libraries elsewhere in the U.S hold patent collections. (These libraries are listed elsewhere in this issue of NAILS). It is your responsibility---or that of your representatives—to perform a thorough patent search. The only help a government employee is allowed to provide is to indicate the proper class and subclass that your invention would fit into (most likely). There are extensive lists of patents within each class and subclass, and these can be purchased for a token fee (usually less than a dollar).

As an inventor, you would generally do all your business with the Patent Office by correspondence. If you insist, an interview can be arranged, and it may prove useful.

All patent applications are kept secret. Top secret. Only the patents which have been issued are made available in the Search Room.

Anyone can obtain a patent. There’s no restriction as to age, sex, or citizenship. If you and another inventor, by coincidence, apply for a patent on the same invention (!) at the same time, the Patent Office will declare an “interference” and determine who is entitled to the patent. Reaching this decision takes more time than usual. When several people work with you to create your invention, the patent is granted only to the person(s) who came up with the idea (and that’s yourself---not the persons who made the invention by following your instructions). The invention belongs to the head, not the hands.

Patents can be applied for or inherited by your estate. They can also be sold (hopefully, for a handsome profit). You cannot apply for a patent---even though your invention is new and useful---if your invention was in public use or on sale in the USA for more than one year before the date of your application. (Even if you were the one doing the selling). Likewise, if you wrote an article describing your invention and had the article published---anywhere in the world--- over a year before your application was filed, your invention cannot be patented.

The only person who can be given a patent is the true inventor. This rules out international “plagiarism” and industrial espionage. Furthermore, the U.S Patent Office protects patents only in the USA. Patent offices in other countries protect patents in their respective countries. If you want global protection, you’ll have to apply to the offices of each of the 200+ sovereign lands in the world. (Perhaps you might want to restrict your activities to Canada and Mexico---that’s if your invention is that commercially desirable.)

You can personally handle all the paperwork necessary for a patent application, or you can hire a patent application, or you can hire a patent attorney to do the work for you (probably $500 and up), or anyone else who’s knowledgeable about such matters.

Ultimately, your purpose in obtaining a patent (whose protection cannot endure beyond the legal 17-year limit) is to develop and market your invention and make a financial killing. The U.S Patent Office does not provide nor assist in development and marketing. It’s all up to you. Find the corporation that wants your patent so that they, too, can get rich. Perhaps you’ll want to talk with your favorite bankers. Or the junior reps in your Chamber of Commerce. Or with the officials of organizations whose sole purpose is to promote patents. Check on all these people to make sure they’re legit. The Better Business Bureau will help. So will the U.S Department of Commerce and Small Business Administration. So will your home state’s planning and development agency (write your governor and he/she will tell you all).

Yet no matter how much you eventually get to know about patents and their procurement, and no matter how supremely outstanding your invention, there always remains the most important question that you must answer: Shall I get a patent? That’s a question that summarizes several more specific sub questions, as follows:

  1. Assuming I apply, how secure do I feel about being issued a patent?
  2. Since only 10 percent of all patents are commercially viable and profitable, will I be able to develop and market my patent profitably, that’s to say, will I earn enough to make up for all the time and expense in applying for a patent---and then some (actually, lots!)?
  3. Why am I applying for a patent? Is it the money or the ego-trip? Am I that keen in making my customers more beautiful?
  4. If someone decides to violate the protection granted by my patent, do I have enough time and money to prosecute---and win? (Never prosecute of you can’t win.)
  5. How long can I wait for the Patent Office to respond to my application? (It usually takes about a year or less.)

If you eventually decide to apply for a patent, do so with the knowledge that it may take three or four years before you begin to recoup any money spent creating and marketing your invention.

Don’t expect to become as famous as Alexander Graham Bell (telephone), Thomas Alva Edison (electric-light bulb, phonograph, and ---would you believe it! ---- 1091 other inventions), and Nikola Tesla (the electric motor) ---all of whom changed the world with their inventions.

But if you decide not to apply for a patent, you can (of course) continue to use your invention, advertise it, sell it, and make money on it now. As long as you don’t attract the covetous eyes of a developer who thinks he can get rich quick from your invention (by analyzing it and producing it himself), then you are home safe. But remember, you only have 17 years at most in which to become a millionaire. Is your invention worth it?

Patents for inventions were first introduced in the 15th century in certain Italian states. The first known patent was granted to an inventor in Florence in 1421, and an ordinance relating to patents was enacted in 1474 in Venice. Patents were seen as monopolies in England, so the Parliament decided to limit patents to a specific number of years; they passed their patent law in 1623 (it was called The Statue of Monopolies). Similar laws sprang up throughout Europe, and since they deal with money, these laws are vigorously maintained. They’re as vigorous here in the USA as they are elsewhere. All you have to do to get patented is “build a better mouse trap.”

In your case, you’ll invent a new artificial nail without odor, or create a device that will dry nails in seconds, or develop a file that never wears out, or produce a substance that makes nails so strong they can extend more easily and durably...

Maybe yes. Maybe no. But whichever, it can be patented.

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