A non-disclosure agreement and provisional patent application are two proven ways to protect your prototype or invention.
Stuart Anders was excited, and with good reason. He and his partners were about to debut their product, the Slap Wraps bracelet, at the annual New York City toy fair in 1990.
That excitement soon turned to despair. Other toy companies took his idea and manufactured similar products that hit stores well before Slap Wraps did. His business was ruined. Years of development went down the drain.
This is part of why releasing an invention into the world is a scary thing. Inventors invest countless hours and brain power on their products, so it can be nerve-racking to finally let drawings or prototypes see the light of day. At best, it is an invitation for criticism; at worst, it is an idea that can be stolen.
Despite cautionary tales like Anders’s, there are safe ways to share innovations— whether it be for feedback or help with prototyping. Here are five techniques to safely share your ideas and prototypes.
The non-disclosure agreement is the first crucial step in keeping your idea safe. An NDA is a legal document between two parties, outlining that confidential material can be disclosed between them. Both parties are legally bound to hold that knowledge private and not use that information for their own gain. If one of the parties violates the agreement, the disclosure can be subject to legal recourse.
Sometimes, NDAs are referred to as CDAs (confidential disclosure agreement), with similar protections. NDAs are a must if you are showing an innovation to anyone offering feedback or to someone who may make prototypes.
At my workplace, Enventys Partners, we always get an NDA in place with a potential client before asking for images, CAD files, or any other documentation. If a service provider does not offer one or will not sign one, be wary of his or her reputability. NDAs are simple to produce, and an internet search will lead you to templates that you can use and modify for yourself. Of course, having a lawyer help review it is strongly recommended.
The Provisional Patent Application
Filing a provisional patent application (PPA) is an effective and inexpensive way to keep your innovation protected. A provisional patent application filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office includes disclosures of your innovation, drawings and claims. It allows you “patent-pending” status and gives you one year of protection before you have to convert the filing into a full utility patent. Provisionals are useful for those who are going to launch a product at a trade show or on a crowdfunding platform.
Depending on the status of your business entity, if you are willing to write the provisional patent application yourself it can be filed on the USPTO website for as little as $70. The application can also be filed with the help of a patent attorney; that fee is usually about $1,000 or more, depending on the innovation’s complexity.
Many inventors need a specialist or technical service provider for help with some part of the product development process. Whether this will be for prototyping, design, 3D printing or other service, it is important to get references. Some service providers may quote an attractive price, but if they are not skilled or reputable, they may do more harm for your product than good. Ask for the contact information of another client they have helped within the last year and follow up to hear about their experience.
If you are getting design work done, ask to talk directly to the industrial designer or engineer who may be assigned to your project. Ask about his or her experience designing in your product category, and be sure to get a portfolio to review. Any reputable firm will not balk at providing this information. Good firms are not in the business of stealing ideas, and if they have many satisfied clients and intelligent designers you have a very high probability of getting great service and keeping your idea safe.
This is where prototyping knowledge and skills can be of particular use. If you still have a mental hurdle about sharing your innovation—even with an NDA and provisional patent application in place—or you are working on a truly groundbreaking product, the only option may be to do all of the development work on your own. High-quality maker tools such as 3D printers and other shop items have come down in price a lot over the last few years, and it is reasonable to outfit a garage with all of the requisite equipment.
If you are not a designer by nature, there are plenty of YouTube videos and tutorials to follow to learn any major CAD package or technical skill. The DIY route may take longer, but it will guarantee that you keep your innovation from unwanted attention.
Avoid inventor narcissism
This is my term for a state of mind that inventors get into sometimes. They feel their idea is so great that they either will not tell you about it or are unwilling to hear any constructive feedback. But the truth is, discussing your idea or product concepts with others you trust may give you key insights to make your product much better or give you the spark to create something completely different that you hadn’t thought of yet.
As long as you have taken steps to protect your intellectual property, either via NDAs or by filing a provisional patent application, talking to others about your idea is a low-risk proposition that has a lot of potential upside. Besides, most people you meet will not be able to steal your idea in a meaningful way, even if you explained it to them and gave them all of the files.