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Patents Protect Inventions

Photo by Tom Campbell

New inventions, such as Tom O'Brien's signaling device, can spur economic development. O'Brien is seeking a patent, one of the first steps in commercializing a product.

Tom O'Brien is a 35-year Elgin, Joliet and Eastern Railway employee who knows the challenges and dangers railroad workers face. To help, he invented and is seeking a patent for a signaling device that one day may rival lanterns that switchmen, brakemen, and conductors now carry. The apparatus will bring a new level of safety and convenience when signaling engineers and coupling and uncoupling railroad cars.

First Steps

Crown Point resident O'Brien has taken the first steps to develop and protect his invention by obtaining a one-year provisional patent. He's working with Purdue University's Technology Center of Northwest Indiana and a patent attorney to prepare the application for a utility patent.

"The provisional patent application is not complicated," O'Brien said. "I filled out a form from the U.S. Patent Office, which has online help for inventors."

Three criteria determine whether an idea is patentable.

  • Novelty—It's a totally new innovation.
  • Usefulness—It has a value to the public.
  • Nonobviousness—It has a new characteristic that would not be easily conceived by a person of average skill in the field.

If an invention meets these requirements and the inventor obtains a one-year provisional patent, the next step is a patent, which grants 20-year property rights for the discovery.

What Patents Enable Inventors to Do

  • Prevent competitors from making, using, or selling the innovation
  • Gain a competitive business advantage
  • Indicate that they have something new and different
  • Obtain legal protection for their idea and business

Patents cover industrial and technical processes, machines, manufactured items, chemical compositions, mixtures, new compounds, and sometimes invention improvements. Trademarks and copyrights protect other ideas, such as graphics and books.

"It's advisable to hire a patent attorney, to search patent office records to determine if identical or closely related ideas are patented, said Cole Ehmke, Purdue Extension agricultural economics research associate. Including the costs of preparing detailed drawings, a written description, application, examination, and attorney fees, a patent costs $3,000 or more.

Application Process

The application process takes one to three years.

"It takes time and patience to write a well-conceived patent application and have the patent office review it," said Ehmke.

To start his patent process, O'Brien talked with staff at the Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization, who referred him to the Purdue University Calumet Entrepreneurship Center. The center put O'Brien in touch with a couple of inventors who mentored him on pursuing the patent.

"Purdue has been a really good resource," said O'Brien. "Purdue has helped me consider different commercialization options, and that's what I'm focusing on now."