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By Scott Nyman

Recently, I had a potential client ask me how to acquire a “poor man’s patent.” The poor man’s patent is an urban legend, a myth, and and provides protection on par with its required investment. The theory behind the “poor man’s patent” is similar to that of the fabled “poor man’s copyright,” you place a document containing the intellectual property you want protected in an envelope and mail it to yourself. Sophisticated versions of this myth require that you use U.S. certified mail when “protecting your invention.” Seriously, I’m not making this up.

Had I been able to practice patent law by simply mailing documents to myself for people, via U.S.  certified mail to be safe, I could have skipped spending most of my twenties in school and accumulating a substantial amount of student loan debt.

Here is what the U.S. Copyright Office has to say on the related “poor man’s copyright.”

I’ve heard about a “poor man’s copyright.” What is it?

The practice of sending a copy of your own work to yourself is sometimes called a “poor man’s copyright.” There is no provision in the copyright law regarding any such type of protection, and it is not a substitute for registration.

To prove that this myth is circulating, I found this eHow article, authored by “wineglass,” outlining the steps to acquire your own “poor man’s patent.” The original article can be found here. The following has been copied from the article*:

How to get a poor man’s patent and also how to get a better patent for cheap.

Difficulty: Moderately Easy

Things you’ll need: postcard, money, computer, product

1. First of all a poor man’s patent is simply, just a postcard you send through the United Postal Service. Just print a copy of the product you designed on it. Address the postcard to your self (sic). Once it comes back stamped by the postal service it is a “Poor Man’s Patent. Risk is the design going out, and maybe not returning. But it is the cheapest way.

2. A better way to get a patent is to go to Lulu.com. Download a picture of your product. Then make a calendar, T-shirt, coffee mug whatever they offer. You design what it is you want and printed on it copyrighted by your name and date. You pay for it. Then Lulu.com sends your design on the product you chose, this is a legitimate patent plus it is copyrighted and no one else can steal it. We spent $40.00 on ours. I am going back to school for Small Business Management. Then we will go public with our product.

3. It is fun and exciting that if it goes big with the economy, you can actually own your own business. Good luck in you adventures.

So then, what does a “poor man’s patent” get you? Besides a zero return on the spent postage, in theory it may provide you with a date stamp showing the date it passed through the U.S. Post Office. Unfortunately for people who buy into this myth, this does NOT equal a priority date for a patent. In fact, there is no patent!

If you’re looking to build evidence for proving a date of invention, in case the validity of your patent is ever challenged, keep good records of the invention process. Save emails regarding the design or invention process, keep engineering notebooks, and maintain records for parts or labor purchased relating to the design phase of your invention. Then, if someone claims they invented your patented product or method first, you will be well prepared to defend your patent. But, you first need a patent that could be challenged! And no, a date stamped postcard won’t do.

Furthermore, if the Patent Reform Act of 2011 passes, also known as the America Invents Act of 2011, first-to-invent won’t matter anyway. So make sure you pick a postcard with a pretty image, so you can salvage it as a refrigerator decoration if the Act passes, or even if it doesn’t. See my coverage of the Patent Reform Act of 2011 here and here.

So what should an inventor on a budget do if he or she wants to patent an invention, but doesn’t have the funds to take a five-figure risk on an invention that may not be marketable?

First, I suggest that you contact a patent attorney such as myself (Nyman@LegalTeamUSA.com), one of the other patent attorneys at Zies Widerman & Malek, or any other competent patent attorney. It is important that you find an attorney that you like and that can understand your invention.

Second, consider filing a provisional patent application. Although this route will not provide you any immediate patent protection, it will provide you with a “patent pending” status and one year of priority to convert your provisional application into a non-provisional application, which will be examined by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for patentability. With the provisional application filed, you can test to see if your invention will be marketable. If so, you may wish to convert your application right away. If not, then at least you’re not losing a big investment.

Just remember folks, not everything you read on the internet is true. Question the source of the information you receive. Heck, maybe I should write an eHow article on this…

* Tactical IP claims no rights to the copyrighted work located on eHow.com. The portion of the work provided herein has been included under fair use. All rights claimed by the original author, eHow.com, or any parent entity thereof, shall be retained by the same. Read more: How to get a Poor Man’s Patent | eHow.com http://www.ehow.com/how_5358538_poor-mans-patent.html#ixzz1HWSlHYAh

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