The world of intellectual property (IP) and patents can be scary. Entrepreneurs worry about overwhelming legalese, paperwork and potential battles that can erupt over patent disputes. But is it always worth the trouble to patent that new idea?

Your best bet is to consult a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property, who will help you protect your ideas while saving you time and money.

David Lafkas, a patent attorney in Cincinnati, recommends interviewing attorneys you want to work with. One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is "not finding an attorney they feel comfortable with," he says. Start by asking other attorneys or accountants you've worked with for referrals. 

Tom Humphrey, a partner with the firm Wood, Herron & Evans, LLP, says your attorney must understand every aspect of your product for it to be successful. "Find someone who knows what you're talking about technically," he says.

After finding the right attorney, Humphrey says it's important to describe your business plan. Your attorney can tell you what to protect, including things you probably hadn't thought needed protecting. Many people assume that they don't have IP to shield, so they don't even visit a lawyer. Skipping this step can be costly and possibly result in someone stealing your great idea. (Yes, idea. New physical inventions aren't the only thing that can be protected legally.)

Charles Brown III, a partner at Dinsmore and Shohl, LLP, points out that different patent laws could apply if you take your idea abroad, which is another reason why it's good to consult an attorney.

Brown's says non-disclosure agreements are crucial to keeping your ideas safe. His biggest advice is for entrepreneurs to get the proper protection before they even start talking about their ideas to anyone.

"There's no concept of inventorship in trademark law," Humphrey notes. Even if you come up with an idea, once you mention it to anyone else they can steal it"”and you'll have little recourse once they've got the trademark and you don't.

Investigate your options as soon as possible to make sure someone else hasn't taken your ideas or invention already. "You don't want to build around something that you can't even do," Humphrey remarks. Brown recommends searching the internet, as well as consulting with search firms in Washington, D.C., that go directly to the U.S. patent office.

Humphrey says big companies secure trademarks and copyrights long before their products hit the streets. You can too. Don't wait to get trademarks until you're ready to launch. You might find they have been taken already.

People are often confused by various types of intellectual property, Humphrey observes. Here's a quick rundown: a trademark is any personal identifier of a business, including sounds or color combinations. Copyrights are often confused with trademarks. Humphrey describes them as "expressive material" such as books and songs, but also user manuals and teaching materials.

There are misconceptions about what can earn a patent, but even methods of business can be patented. Both Humphrey and Lafkas point out there are different options available with patents.

Keep in mind that obtaining a patent can be costly. Brown estimates that they typically cost $1,000 to $10,000 each. But entrepreneurs have options such as a provisional patent. Brown says many people mistake this as some sort of cheap, easy patent, but it's actually a way to file some information, allowing you to "bookmark your time."

He recommends meeting with a patent attorney and putting all your ideas on paper to find out if you have enough for a provisional patent.  If you do, you can submit your idea to the patent office while you raise money for an actual patent (provisional patents cost only $100).

Entrepreneurs have a year from when they first reveal their idea to file for a patent. And once you've filed, you could be in for a long wait. Lafkas has seen patent approval take a few months to five or six years. Most people think being able to say "patent pending" will help their business. While that's true, it can sometimes be a big hassle. "They might be better off to be the first to market," he says.

Brown recommends thinking of claims in a patent application the same way the four corners of one's property are stipulated in a land deed. Your claims illustrate how your ideas are different from anything else out there.

Always get documentation, and that doesn't mean a signature on paper with a lot of other spoken promises. You can also get legal forms from intellectual property lawyers that clear up future muddiness. "Just because you paid for copyrightable work doesn't mean you own the copyright," Humphrey says.

But when getting a patent, Lafkas warns against companies that try to lure the business of inventors. These companies promise to get you a patent, but typically file for quick, easy patents that might not protect your product at all. "They're not all bad, but I don't know what the good ones are," he says. "So many horror stories come out of those situations." He recommends bouncing ideas off other entrepreneurs, especially at the monthly meetings of the Inventor's Council of Cincinnati (

Even if you don't plan on owning your business forever, securing intellectual property will make your business more valuable and easier to sell. When in doubt, and even when you're not, consult and get paperwork. "Anything can have a trademark or a copyright issue," Humphrey says, "even just a new way of selling mousetraps."

A patent or IP lawyer will help you navigate the legal world of inventing, but they won't know everything. "Think of the attorney as a translator," Lafkas says"”someone to put the parameters of your invention in legalese. No one knows your invention better than you do. 


Othet Entrepreneur Toolkit Articles:

A Safe Bet (Banking)

Closing the Money Gap (Overview)

Nurturing Success (Incubators)

One-Stop Shopping (Office Tech/Communications)