When an artist completes a work of art, he typically signs it. Reporters, scientists, fiction authors and even blog writers all ensure that their names are included with their work when it is published. They are all marking their work as their own, so that they can share it without risking someone else using it for their own personal gain. But how do you protect your work in this manner if what you've created is a new machine, new software, a new business method, or something else unique and useful that could be replicated and redistributed if it fell into the wrong hands? This is where patents come in.
A patent is a legal document which grants its holder exclusive control over the patented material, which can range from biological discoveries or purified compounds to unique designs of functional items (such as the distinctive shape of the glass Coca Cola bottle) to new machines and tools for everyday use. Even a simple improvement to an ordinary machine can be the subject of a patent, like a wire cutter that pulls from a spool instead of needing an extra device to load the wire, or the sewing machine from Bernina that has some new advancement to permit faster stitching. Of course, not everything can be patented and not every application is accepted. The submission of a patent application simply leads to the patent protection, or the process of negotiations and interactions between the inventor and the patent office, a necessary process that leads (one hopes) to the grant of the actual patent.
While a patent's purpose is to protect your rights as an inventor, the patent is only as good as your ability and willingness to defend it. If you invent a new method of handling data, and MicroSoft uses it without your permission, are you prepared to fight a legal battle against them to get what you're owed?
Different countries often have different regulations surrounding patent law, and patents must be filed for each geographic area in which the product requires protection. National patent applications offer coverage within a single nation, while regional patent applications can offer coverage for a number of countries at the same time, reducing the number of times one needs to prosecute one's application. In these cases, you would likely still need to seek out patent translation services if you wished to file a patent in a foreign country. In the case of international applications, the Patent Cooperation Treaty enables applicants to file a single application in a single language for any of the participating countries. While the PCT does not grant patents directly, it does expedite the process so that most of the steps in applying for a patent do not require repeated completion.
So what are you waiting for? If you have a fantastic new idea that you've been hiding from the world for fear of it being stolen, get started on your patent application. An approved patent may be the key to making your business sustainable.