How to Patent a Simple Invention
By Carly Klein
You came up with a simple, elegant solution to a common problem. You want to bring this non-complex and one-part product to the marketplace. Now what?
To make your simple invention available for consumer use, and to monetize your invention to the fullest possible extent, you should first obtain intellectual property protection by securing a patent.
What is a patent?
A patent is a federal statutory grant of exclusivity to the inventor of a useful, novel, non-obvious invention for up to twenty years. Patents are a powerful and lucrative form of intellectual property. The right conferred by a patent grant is “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States.
Patents are granted for this limited time period of twenty years to an inventor on the basis of an application after a process of examination. Once valid, a patent grants protection from any subsequent independent invention by another inventor that tries to copy the product, deeming the the latter inventor the infringer.
What qualifies as a simple invention?
A simple invention is anything that is a tangible, physical consumer product with fewer than two moving parts. A simple invention will not contain a software or technical component as it is merely just a device. There might be no movable parts or there could be one or two. Examples of simple inventions are baseball bats, grill scrapers, coffee mugs, etc.
If my invention is so simple, it should be easy to patent- right?
Interestingly enough, the answer is no. Patents for complicated designs are often easier to obtain than patents for simple inventions. Most of the time simple, solutions can get rejected because they are not novel or not non-obvious.
What are the complications involved with patenting a simple invention?
First, in order to qualify for a patent, an invention must meet five eligibility standards set forth by the US Patent & Trademark Office:
- The intention be a new and useful process, machine, or object.
- The invention must have utility.
- The invention must be novel/new.
- The invention must be non-obvious.
- The invention must not have been disclosed to the public before the patent application.
Patent attorney J.D. Houvener says that, “Most of the time, simple solutions get rejected when you file a patent application because they fail to meet the eligibility requirements of novelty or non-obviousness. Unless an invention is completely groundbreaking or first of its kind, it is difficult to obtain a patent for something so simple.”
Most simple inventions fall under the scope of a utility patent. However, utility patents are often too difficult to obtain for a simple object because they lack the aspects of functionality and novelty.
For example, if an inventor seeks a utility patent for a new hairbrush, he or she must show that it performs its function better than anything else. The patent will likely be rejected because its merely an obvious twist on an already existing object which performs the same function as the original model.
A design patent as a loophole
An inventor struggling to patent a simple invention under a utility patent can sometimes get a design patent instead. While a design patent has much less value as it only protects what the invention looks like, it is better than no patent at all. With the hairbrush example, the inventor might be trying to patent a brush with a new kind of curve. Rather than demonstrating how the curve works, the inventor can show how the brush has a specific aesthetic twist and be eligible for a design patent. This will protect people from having that exact design.
Patents consist of descriptions and claims
Another complication in patenting a simple object is that patents are granted and defined by claims. These claims are comprised of descriptions and a numbered list of specific traits that explain how the invention is non-obvious, novel, and new. The claims explain how the product works, why the product exists, and how to use the product.
If an inventor is trying to patent their simple invention with a simple claim, Houvener says that, “A very simple one liner claim is going to get rejected unless you have something unbelievable that no one has ever seen. Most patents today are improvements that stand on the shoulders of current inventions. It is actually quite rare to see a brand new genus or new type of patent object.”
Case study: the toothbrush
The toothbrush is a simple, elegant invention that everyone (hopefully!) uses multiple times a day. Picture the most basic, disposable toothbrush you have ever seen. In picking it up and examining it, you can see that there are only two parts: the brush itself and the bristles.
However, the patent for this simple invention is not so simple. There are twelve total claims on one toothbrush patent and twenty-two total paragraphs describing the toothbrush. One of the claims for a toothbrush patent reads:
“A toothbrush comprising a handle (12) and a brushing head mounted thereon and including an elongated base element (14) having a longitudinal axis (18) and mounting a plurality of bristle elements (16) extending generally transversely to said axis and each having one end (26) affixed to said base member and the other end (24) free, said free ends defining together a generally V-shaped channel (40) for receiving a tooth and for guiding said brushing head….”
You get the picture: even the most simple, elegant invention, requires an extremely specific and in depth description.
The solution: draft your claim well
To write a claim for a simple invention that will stand up against the eligibility tests of non-obviousness and novelty, you and your patent attorney must get extraordinarily creative with the patent language. As Houvener explained, you can’t come up with a one-liner and expect patentability.
Instead, to have the best shot at patenting a simple, elegant invention, the patent claim language must break the device down into a number of claims in equally simple, elegant language.
Moreover, the claim should consist of as few claims as possible to cover every specific aspect, nuance, and use for the invention. The language does not need to be convoluted or confusing, but it does have to be all-encompassing. The shorter and simpler the claim is, the more valuable it will be. Longer claims with more wording have less value because in order to show infringement, a patent holder must prove that the infringer is copying everything in the patent claim. Literal infringement involves making, using, or selling a copycat version of a patented invention. The less complicated or lengthy the patent language, the easier your patent will be to enforce because it will be easier to demonstrate literal infringement.
It is difficult, but not impossible to patent your simple invention
While it might be more of an uphill battle to patent your simple invention than you may have thought, it is possible to do so if your claim can stand up to the eligibility tests of novelty and non-obviousness.
On the upside, some patent law firms actually charge less for a simple invention with less moving parts than they would charge for a complicated new piece of technology or software.
If you think your invention has what it takes to get a patent, and you think your invention has the power to make someone’s life just a little bit better, then the patent process may very well be a path worth taking.