You Have an Idea for an Invention ... Now What?

The Invention Process
Sinclair Chief Designer Alex Kalogroulis rides the new folding 'A-Bike' on the banks of the Thames in London, England.
Sinclair Chief Designer Alex Kalogroulis rides the new folding 'A-Bike' on the banks of the Thames in London, England.
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Thomas Alva Edison, best known for inventing the light bulb, famously said that "Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

Almost all great inventors have had this one thing in common: They're fanatical about capturing their ideas before they're forgotten. Whether sketching them down on paper, writing out descriptions or speaking into a voice recorder, the most prolific creators know the first step is to get that idea logged somewhere they can re-visit it. From there, they meticulously record the outcomes of experiments and take lots of notes on their work -- further stimulating new ideas.

Copious note-taking also affords the inventor some legal protection in case of a dispute over who thought of an idea first [source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology].

A sense of urgency also helps. Often with inventions, especially new technologies, several people around the world will independently come up with the same idea simultaneously. So it's just a matter of who gets to their country's patent office first. Radio, for instance, can claim several "fathers," including Nikola Tesla, Guglielmo Marconi and others who simultaneously raced to develop radio as we know it today. But it was Marconi, who through speed and powerful business connections received the U.S. patent for inventing radio -- along with the Nobel Prize in 1911 [source: New Voyage Communications/PBS].

So should you file for a patent, trademark or copyright? Well, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office:

  • Patents are used to protect inventions and improvements to existing inventions.
  • Trademarks are words, names, symbols, devices and images used on products or used in conjunction with goods or services to identify their source.
  • Copyrights are used when protecting the expression of ideas in literary, artistic and musical works.

With your invention conceived, protected by the law from being poached and perhaps already built, how do you go about getting it out to the public? And getting a nice payday?