The Collegiate Inventors Competition is a national competition designed to encourage college and graduate students to be active in science, engineering, mathematics, technology, and creative invention. This prestigious challenge recognizes and rewards the innovations, discoveries, and research by college and university students and their advisors for projects leading to inventions that may have the potential to receive patent protection. Introduced by the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1990, with USPTO participation, the Collegiate Inventors Competition has annually rewarded individuals or teams for their innovative work and scientific achievement. All entries must be submitted on the official application form and must be postmarked by June 16, 2009.
In order to compete students must be enrolled (or have been enrolled) full-time in any U.S. or Canadian college or university at least part of the 12-month period prior to the date the entry is submitted. In the case of a team, which can be no larger than four members, at least one member of the team must meet the full-time eligibility criteria. The other team members must have been enrolled on a part-time basis (at a minimum) sometime during the 24-month period prior to the date the entry is submitted.
Judging will be undertaken by a committee of judges represents various fields, including mathematics, engineering, biology, chemistry, physics, information technology, materials science, and medicine. Entries are judged on the originality and inventiveness of the new idea, process, or technology. The entry must be complete, workable, and well articulated. Entries are also judged on their potential value to society (socially, environmentally, and economically), and on the scope of use.
With many competitions those who enter run the risk of losing some or all control of the invention and/or the underlying intellectual property rights. That, however, is not the case with respect to this competition. Anticipating this question the competition website explains:
The goal of the Collegiate Inventors Competition is to recognize, award, and encourage student innovation we do not seek any ownership interests in your invention. We strongly encourage all students to begin the appropriate intellectual property protection process as soon as possible.
While the competition rules do not specifically require the disclosure of what is called an “enabling” disclosure, which would explain how to make and use the invention to one of ordinary skill in the art, applicants should take precautions to protect any intellectual property underlying the invention by filing at least a provisional patent application either before entering, or as soon thereafter as possible. Nevertheless, to protect contestants all individuals reviewing entries are bound by nondisclosure agreements, so even if you do include enough information so as to enable the invention you should still be safe because disclosures made to those who have an obligation to maintain secrecy are not considered to be public disclosures. In fact, in order to further protect any intellectual property rights that may potentially exist, the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation only uses the titles and very short descriptions of the inventions for publicity purposes. Further, they say that they do not publicize the specifics of the underlying technology.
It is not surprising that a contest co-sponsored by the United States Patent and Trademark Office would go out of its way to ensure that contestants are not giving up any patent rights that might otherwise be obtained. Unfortunately, however, many contests are not so generous, so it is always wise to particularly review any rules prior to entering in any invention contest. It is also particularly important to remember that there are a number of events that are outside the control of an inventor that could prevent the issuance of a patent, so it is always advisable to file a patent application as soon as reasonably possible upon the identification of innovations or technologies that could potentially be protected through the issuance of a patent.
It is also important to understand that while in recent years strides have been made in harmonizing patent laws between and among the various countries of the world, patent laws are still in important ways unique from country to country. While general rules of thumb are not advisable, it is certainly fair to say that the United States provides greater protections to inventors prior to filing. By this I mean to say that in the U.S. inventors can share information and even disclose aspects of an invention prior to filing a patent application, but a patent application would need to be filed within 12 months of a triggering event, such as a public use, sale, offer for sale or publishing of information that is enabling. In most (perhaps all) other countries the law is one of absolute novelty, meaning that if the invention is disclosed, sold, offered for sale or published all possibility of patent rights are immediately lost. Thus, this again favors the early filing of a patent application, and the lesson should be that assuming you understand patent law, particularly international patent law, is not wise.
At the very least, whenever one is inventing detailed notes should be contemporaneously taken, and signed by a witness from time to time to verify the contemporaneous taking of the notes. This is important because the U.S. is still a first to invent country, which means that even if you are the second to file a patent application on a particular invention you may still be entitled to receive the patent if you can demonstrate you were the first to invent. This right is not afforded in other countries, so the party that applies for a patent first would receive the patent, once again favoring the early filing of a patent application. In short, there are many reasons to file a patent application early in the process, although if you do not quickly file you should not assume that all potential U.S. rights have been lost. Consultation with a patent attorney can clarify the law with respect to the circumstances related to your invention.
For more information about patent law and patentability requirements see:
Overview of the U.S. Patent Process
Do it Yourself Provisional Patent Application
Keeping a Good Invention Notebook
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