The Poor Man's Patent is a Myth
One of the undying myths of Patent World is that there is such a thing as a Poor Man's Patent. If you've never heard of it, the poor man's patent involves writing out a description of your invention and mailing that description to yourself. The transmission of this description through the mail and the cancelling of the postage by the Post Office is supposed to establish a date of invention for you. That way if someone steals your invention or comes along and invents it independently, you have "proof" that you invented it first. The proof is in the sealed envelop and the date the postage was cancelled.Do A Patent Search Early In The Invention Process.
There is nothing more valuable than a patent search when you have a new idea. The reason a search is so valuable is that this single step can save the average inventor a fortune. Many times you will find your invention has already been patented. If that is the case and the patent is still active, i.e. less than 17-20 years old in most cases, you will either want to change your idea or start over with a new concept. Often there is no point in pursuing an idea that has already been patented if your idea infringes the patent. Your goal as an inventor should be to seek out reasons why your invention will not work and will not make you money. This is hard for most people to understand.Direct-Hire Professional Search
If you want to save lawyer fees and mark-ups, consider going directly to a patent search firm. Searchers are best found through inventor grapevines, inventor associations, or university intellectual property departments. In larger cities, you can also check the Yellow Pages under "patent searchers." But be careful not to fall into a trap set by some disreputable invention marketing organizations. They list themselves in the phone book under "patent searchers" with a toll-free number. This is another way they hook unsuspecting inventors into service contracts. Get all the facts up front. Some reputable searchers ask for money up front if they don't know you. This is understandable. Just be sure you get the cost of the search beforehand, and get—and check—references. The cost to search a utility patent in the Washington, D.C., area runs between $500 and $1,000. It is roughly $100 per hour for a competent search. Once the search has been completed, if you want to obtain an opinion on the patentability of your invention, add the cost of your lawyer. If you need to show a prospective licensee that your invention has a good shot at a patent or that it's unlikely to infringe on an existing product, a letter from competent patent counsel may do the trick.How to Conduct a Patent Search
To get a basic understanding of patent searches read Searching For Students and in particular read Searching Using Key Words . It was written for students; however, if you can look past the cute language it will quickly get you reading and searching patents online within minutes. It will not be enough to do a diligent (complete) search for prior art by only using the Internet. For that you would need to understand the patent classification system and be prepared to do days or even weeks of research.The Do-It-Yourself Patent Search
If you decide to do the patent search yourself, you have several search methods available: The USPTO (United States Patent Trade Office) Public Search Facility. The USPTO operates a Patent Public Search Facility located in Alexandria, Virginia. Here every U.S. patent granted since 1790 may be searched and examined. Many inventors like to make at least one pilgrimage to the Patent Public Search Facility. It's located fewer than 15 minutes from National Airport by taxi; Metro Rail serves it off the Blue and Yellow lines, King Street Station; and several hotels are within walking distance, so it's easy to get to and around.