The Top 5 Mistakes Inventors make with their Invention

top_5_pedestalThere is a maze of information available online for new inventors, much of it very good and much of it highly questionable.  Therefore, it is not surprising that each and every week I receive multiple general inquiries from newbie inventors.  Although the inquiry can take many different forms, the question inevitably boils down to something like this: “I have recently come up with an idea that I would like to pursue.  I have never invented anything in the past, and I have no idea where to start.  Help!”

I recently updated our Invention to Patent 101 page, which is an excellent place to start on the journey to better understand the entire process. Having said that, generally speaking the first step toward commercializing an invention and making money is typically to pursue the patent path.  For those new to the industry it is important to understand that on the road to a patent there are many mistakes that inventors can make unwittingly, some of which will ultimately make it impossible to obtain a patent.

PLEASE NOTE: As I discuss the following areas of concern I make reference on several occasions to what is called the 12 month grace period. Prior to March 16, 2013, you could engage in certain activities without jeopardizing your ability to obtain a patent in the United  States, such as selling your invention. With passage of the America Invents Act (AIA), effective March 16, 2013, everything changed. It is true that there is still a very narrow grace period available and that the grace period lasts a maximum of 12 months. However, it is critical for inventors to consider the new “first to file” patent regime in the U.S. as requiring them to file a patent before engaging in any public use, sale, offer for sale or disclosure outside of a confidential relationship. The grace period can and should be relied upon only in the event of a mistake or accident.

With that in mind, here is a list of the top 5 mistakes inventors make, followed by discussion of what you should do to move your project forward in an appropriate and responsible way.


1. Sold the Invention

In the United States you have 12 months from the time the invention was first sold within which to file either a provisional patent application or a nonprovisional patent application.  If you wait longer than 12 months then you have forever forfeited the right to obtain a patent in the US. Still, as mentioned above, in the new first to file era for U.S. patent law you should never sell your invention or offer your invention for sale without having first filed a patent application.

Even if you are aware of this rule and you do not sell or offer your invention for sale before you file a patent application there can still be traps that await you. For example, if you file a patent application that fails to adequately disclose your invention and then you start selling you may find out later that the application you filed did nothing to establish priority. That could mean you need to start over fresh with a new application done properly. The trouble now is that you have been selling the invention thinking you were safe, but then learn that the application you initially filed was so defective that it was as if you filed nothing.


2. Publicly used the invention

Public use of an invention can create the same problems as a sale or offer for sale.  If you use an invention publicly you have 12 months from the first public use to apply for a patent. If you miss this 12 month window you will not be able to obtain a patent on that which you used publicly. Of course, if you want foreign rights you need to apply first before you use the invention publicly because in many countries there is no grace period of any kind. Remember also that the better advice is simply not to publicly use your invention before you file a patent application that adequately describes your invention.




3. Terrible provisional patent applications

provisional patent application is a great tool when it is used properly, and devastating when it is not use properly.  A provisional application is extremely easy to file because all you have to do is complete a cover sheet and then attach a description of your invention.  There are no requirements that the description be in a particular format, and the truth is the Patent Office does not even look at the provisional application.  This has lead to many non-lawyers and non-law firm vendors offering provisional patent application services for just a few hundred dollars.

Unfortunately for the unwitting inventor who uses a bargain basement, deep discount service provider, the law requires that a provisional patent application describe the invention with the same level of detail as is required of a nonprovisional patent application.  This means that while you can easily get a provisional patent application on file and have a “patent pending” if you do not describe the invention with the level of detail and sophistication required by the patent laws your provisional application is worthless.

Even worse, because you had a patent application pending you may have done things, such as using or selling your invention, as mentioned above.  This is a nightmare because if you filed a provisional application that was not specific enough and then used or sold your invention you have forever forfeited foreign rights, and the application you filed may not be able to be used later to support a filing date.  Worse yet, a badly done provisional patent application could even conclusively prove that as of the time that you filed the application you did not have a completed invention. Even worse, if you first start using or selling your invention and then you file a provisional patent application you may think you are safe. But if the disclosure in the provisional patent application is so poor it won’t help. By the time you get around to filing a nonprovisional patent application it is now more than 12 months since your first use or offer for sale, which means you could be forever prevented from obtaining rights even in the United States.

The morale of the story is that a bad provisional patent application not only does not help you, but it could significantly and severly hurt you.


4. No professional patent search

I hear all the time from inventors who have done their own patent search and have found nothing similar to their invention.  This is the first warning.  With well over 9,000,000 US patents and counting, and many millions of published application that have never been patented, it is virtually impossible to do a patent search and not find something relevant.  Patent searching is an art more than anything and if you are not intimately familiar with how the Patent Office classifies inventions and how attorneys characterize things then you would never find what you are looking for even if there is a patent out there that covers exactly what you invented.

Obtaining a patent is an expensive undertaking, and saving a few hundred, or even a few thousand dollars by doing your own patent search is just silly.  Sure, look for yourself first.  I even have an article explaining how to do your own search (see Patent Searching 101 and Patent Searching 102: Using Public PAIR).  If you find something then you save the money you would have otherwise paid, but just because you do not find anything does not mean that there is nothing to be found.  Why spend many thousands of dollars seeking a patent when a professional patent search would have shown you that a patent would likely not be awarded?


5. No Internet search

Over the years I have preached to inventors over and over again about the importance of doing a patent search.  Earlier in my career I would hear from inventors who would say that they searched the Internet thoroughly and could not find the invention so they want to move forward.  Wait a minute!  There are any number of reasons why a product might be patented and not available for purchase.  For example, independent inventors will many times obtain a patent and then not follow the project through, run out of money, lose interest or simply not succeed despite best efforts.  Then when someone else has the same or similar idea/invention (which will ALWAYS happen) a search is done, the prior art is found and the decision is made that it isn’t worthwhile to commercialize if a patent cannot be obtained.  There are many gadgets not on the market because no patent protection could be obtained because it was patented many years earlier.

Over time, however, I have come in contact with a variety of inventors who do their own patent search, then they have a professional patent search done in the responsible manner.  Everything looks clear and then out of no where the inventor finds the exact thing is available for sale on the Internet.  How can that happen?

A patent search is just that.  A search of patents and published patent applications.  You hire trained professionals to do a patent search, but the patent search does not typically include a product search online.  That is the responsibility of the inventor.  So for goodness sakes, if you come up with an invention the very first thing you should do is see whether it exists and can be purchased online or in stores.  If it can be then you shouldn’t move forward.  If you can’t find it online don’t celebrate and rush off to hire a patent attorney.  Do your own patent search.  Then once you confirm that you can’t find it on the Internet and you can’t find a patent reference, then proceed to a professional patent search with an opinion.


Knowing the pitfalls that lie ahead of you will help you stay on the straight and narrow path toward success. You can do it!  The invention to patent to commercialization cycle just takes determination, and of course some funds to get things off the ground.

Of course, this article has only focused on certain aspects of getting started.  For more basic information on patent basics, inventing, setting a budget, executing the plan and more please see:


Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of

Join the Discussion

3 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    July 25, 2015 08:00 am

    With a little tongue in cheek, the list can be boild down to the top two mistakes:

    1) File
    2) Don’t file.

    As they say, the devil is in the details…

  • [Avatar for Medrock]
    July 24, 2015 06:34 am

    I have had so many invention ideas in the past that I am glad I didn’t take further because I later realized they were either bad ideas, or were already on the market. I found a blog post from a guy that avoided the same pitfalls described above.
    I agree, doing your own patent search is nearly impossible.

  • [Avatar for Dave Savage]
    Dave Savage
    July 19, 2015 10:30 am

    When sharing advice with “product developers, especially new ones, I always add these two points.

    Since most patents never become a product on the market, or a successful or profitable product, it is important to find out who owns or controls it and what the status of future plans they have for it. Buying or licensing the patent can often be done for pennies on the dollar. Licencing the right to use all or part of the patent claims is also worth investigating if your product is being marketed to another industry or if you can partner with the patent holder of a successful product to develop or co-develop and market the “next generatio” of their product.

    And the next very important point I make is that a patent describes a product, that when made, will result in a manufacturing cost range, depending on a variety of factors. 99% of the folks who show up at our inventor association meetings have not done, enough market research to validate the sufficently profitable retail price range for a product offering the benefits of their idea. The result is a failure to launch or a sudden realization that there aren’t enough customers willing to pay the price they need to charge to interest retailers, or inventors. They inventor is often totally ingnorant of all of the hidden and indirect costs of a product, for themselves or when pitching the project for licensing..

    Dave Savage – past president and mentor with the Southeast Inventors Association in Atlanta. [email protected]