To encourage the creation of valuable ideas, and protect them from being stolen, the U.S. legal system developed the concept of intellectual property.

Patents are products of the legal system. As such, they apply only to inventions, and then only if the invention falls within legally defined categories.

To be patented, your invention not only must fall within one of the three statutory classes, it also must fulfill three other requirements:

A patent search is a subset of the prior art search in which you look for mention of similar ideas in academic and technical literature, etc. You must conduct a prior art search, including a patent search, and submit your findings along with your application to the USPTO.

"Anything that won't sell, I don't want to invent." - Thomas Edison

Before spending a small fortune on patenting an ingenious idea, consider several market issues. Does your invention offer a unique and better solution to a real problem?

Patent law is highly complex, and drafting patents is among the most difficult of all legal writing. That's why experts caution that preparing and filing patent applications on your own may result in patents that don't give adequate protection.

“Take my word for it.” In the world of patent law, this adage holds little weight. The first person to invent a useful, novel, and non-obvious idea is the legal inventor. That's why in cases of dispute, it's imperative to be able to prove the date when you first envisioned the invention. Regardless of what anyone tells you, mailing yourself a registered letter does not constitute legal proof of invention.

Persistence and determination are key ingredients in transforming your idea into a product in the marketplace.

You may license your patent exclusively or to more than one party. Non-exclusive rights allow many entities—including you—to practice the invention simultaneously. Other issues to be considered in a licensing grant include territory covered; how long the license will be effective; how the invention will be used; and royalty rates.

Given the time it takes for a patent to be issued, it may be a good idea to start marketing your invention immediately after you've filed the patent application. Developing a business plan is one of the first items on the agenda.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in the entire invention process is raising capital. It's impossible to cover this topic comprehensively on a web page. We offer a few tips—the first of which is to research the subject thoroughly.

Few things in life are as satisfying as translating your creative spark into reality. Stay determined, persistent and above all, enthusiastic. Good luck with your invention and have fun.