No doubt you or someone you know has come up with a clever way to solve a problem and has heard it said, “You should patent that idea!”
For many people, inventions and ideas are the same. To the Patent Office, ideas and inventions are very different. The Patent Office requires Non-Provisional patent applications to have one or more claims particularly pointing out and distinctly claiming the subject matter which the applicant regards as his or her invention. One of the reasons for this requirement is to prevent people from claiming ideas.
An invention is a concrete solution to a problem, while an idea is an abstract solution to a problem. If you can describe how to make and use your solution so that someone else does not have to guess on how to make and use your solution, then your solution is an invention. However, if someone else has to guess at one or more aspects of how to make and use your solution, then your solution is an idea.
Let’s look at some hypothetical examples.
Roberta has an idea for a beach umbrella that can change its opacity depending on how bright the sun is so that it lets more light through when cloudy and less light through when sunny. If Roberta can describe what components are needed to build the umbrella and exactly how it would operate, then Roberta has an invention instead of an idea. If Roberta is serious about commercializing her invention, then she should put resources into filing a patent application.
Bob has an idea for a chair that automatically reclines if the person sitting down in it has a beverage in their hand. If Bob can describe how the chair reclines, but not how it detects the beverage then Bob has an idea instead of an invention. If Bob is serious about commercializing his idea, then he should figure out how the chair detects a beverage before putting resources into filing a patent application. If Bob tried to file a Non-Provisional application with claims to the chair detecting beverages but did not explain exactly how the chair makes this detection of the beverage, the Patent Office would reject the claims.
If you are stuck at the idea stage do not give up. There are engineering and product development firms that can help you (for a fee). If you are worried about trusting others with your idea, one solution may be to have them sign a non-disclosure and work for hire agreement giving you some protection over your ideas before you start working with them. Another option is to file an initial provisional type application first on just the pieces you can describe and then follow up later with a second, more complete provisional application. When it comes time to filing the full non-provisional application, we can link that back to both the initial provisional and the second provisional (assuming its only been 12 months or less from the start of the first provisional).