Can you patent your own idea for free? A Poor Man’s Patent
Since I’ve began working for a registered patent attorney I have been bombarded with family and friends “million dollar” ideas and inventions. Recently I was asked by my uncle if a poor man’s patent is a legit way to protect his idea. For those of you who are not familiar with it, a “poor man’s patent” involves mailing a description of your invention to yourself in order to authenticate a date of invention for you by the Post Office. “The proof is in the sealed envelope and the date the postage was cancelled.”
Few are aware that “filing” a patent this way can only hurt the inventor causing great setbacks to the success of their invention. The sealed envelope only proves that you had an idea but does not show any further development to your invention.
Then I get the question,
“But what if I mailed an updated description of my invention to myself every time I adjusted it so that the original establishment date of the invention would remain intact?”
Unfortunately, the credibility of this type of evidence can be questioned because mailing can be easily manipulated, for example you could steam open a letter and later reseal it or mail several empty, unsealed envelopes to yourself which the Post Office will deliver. Additionally the credibility of this type of evidence can be questioned because you would be the only witness to testify the significance of the document. Thus even following the old rule of “first to invent” the Post Office is a questionable way to establish a date for your invention.
As of the recent “Patent Reform Act ” the law has been altered from, the “first to invent” to the “first to file” which essentially eliminates the concept of the “Poor Man’s Patent” because there is no benefit to prove you were the first to invent if you lost the race to the patent office.
However, the “Poor Man’s Patent” could help prove you were the first invent in a “derivation proceeding” if you could prove the idea was derived by you. (i.e. Someone left your employment or otherwise took it from you and filed before you).
So, what you should do instead to protect your idea? File a patent application with the USPTO, such as a provisional or non-provisional Patent Application which may allow you to win the race to the patent office.