I have an idea to do with visual projection systems. I'm not versed on the subject but I am technically inclined (I study computer science and engineering). How would I go about obtaining a patent for my idea?

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Yes, some ideas can be patentable, but not all ideas. This post explores the basics of what differentiates patentable and non-patentable ideas and gives suggestions on how to determine whether your idea might be patentable.

What is an idea? First, let’s define what “idea” means. For our purposes here, we are talking about thoughts or conceptions that are primarily the result of mental activity, but that have not yet become physical products or prototypes. In other words, an idea is the earliest stage of the inventing process, where an invention is still only in the mind or has only been written about or sketched out.

Patents Can Only Protect Certain Types of Ideas. Some ideas will not be patentable simply because they are not the right kind of idea. For example, if you have an idea for an awesome movie, a new book, the perfect product name, or a catchy slogan for your company, these ideas will not be patentable simply because patents do not protect these sorts of things. On the other hand, such ideas might be protectable by copyrights or trademarks.

Patents can protect ideas for utilitarian products like mechanical devices, computer hardware and software, biotechnology, and even methods of making or using a product. However, patent law has carved out some exceptions of utilitarian inventions that cannot be patented, including laws of nature, natural phenomena, and abstract ideas. For example, without more, mathematical equations and common processes being implemented on a computer are likely not patentable because they are considered abstract ideas.

Even if an idea is related to the right subject matter, patent law also requires that the idea be (1) describable in sufficient detail such that an average person in the field would be able to make and use the proposed product or method; and (2) the described product or method must be new and non-obvious compared to known technology.

Are ideas patentable? Sufficient Description of Idea Fortunately, the requirement is not that the inventor be able to sufficiently describe the invention, and in many cases, an idea can be patentable even if the inventor would not know how to implement it. For example, if the inventor can describe an idea to a patent attorney such that the patent attorney is able to then add sufficient detail, then the idea might be patentable. The required level of detail required for patentability changes dramatically depending on the type of invention, so talking with a patent attorney as early as possible is the best way to determine if you have enough detail to patent your idea.

Product or Method Must Be New And Non-Obvious. The patent system does not afford protection to ideas or inventions that are already publicly known or that would be obvious in view of what is already publicly known. Being “publicly known” refers not only to existing products, but also to any technology disclosure such as a patent publication, a blog post, a video, a live presentation, or the like (collectively known as “prior art”). For more information, an in-depth discussion of prior art and patentability can be found in Patents Demystified.

How Can You Find Out if Your Idea Is Patentable? This post should give you an understanding of the analysis that goes into determining whether an idea or invention is patentable, but the best and most reliable way to know is to seek the counsel of a trusted patent attorney. For some, filing a patent application may be possible much sooner than expected, whereas for others, an idea may need to be substantially more developed. Just as much as inventors should not waste their time and money if an idea is not patentable, they should also not wait longer than necessary to file a patent application. Luckily, such an initial evaluation of an idea or invention can be done extremely fast, and most patent attorneys will even do it free of charge.

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