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Suppose I come up with a product with some characteristics that are unique enough that it could be patented. However, I don't have enough money to file for a patent at the launch date. Can a competitor file for a patent describing basically my product before I have the chance to? And could it be granted?

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The US law has changed from first-to-invent to first-to-file, so it's best to file a patent as soon as possible.

You can first file a provisional patent application, which won't become a granted patent but will establish a priority date so that your competitor cannot patent your idea later. However later on you will need to file a non-provisional patent application, at which point you hopefully monetize your invention enough to afford a real patent attorney.

If you are certain you can't afford the cost of getting a real patent but want to be on the defensive so that your competitor won't patent your invention and then sue you, you can publish a public technical disclosure anywhere to establish a disclosure date. After that point no one can claim your invention, including yourself.

  • Useful answer, thanks. I'm going to look up the details of the "technical disclosure" strategy, that was interesting. – San Diago Feb 21 '16 at 14:59

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