Is it an Invention or just a New Idea?

Assuming that you’ve thought of something that’s new and inventive, do you have actually have an “invention” or is it rather the case that you merely have “a new idea”?

Although an invention may be very broadly claimed in a patent, it remains the case that patents are for inventions. For example, ” Make a powder that when you add it to water turns the water into combustible fuel” is a great idea. Unfortunately, if you don’t know how to make such a powder, you don’t have an invention, you only have an idea.

In my opinion ideas can’t be protected by any of the intellectual property regimes, such as patents, designs and trademarks etc. The free exchange of ideas is part of the normal discourse that goes on in human societies. It may be possible to restrict access to a new idea for a few years using a confidentiality agreement (i.e. a ‘non-disclosure agreement’ or ‘NDA’) but the subject matter of a confidentiality agreement is technically not intellectual property per-se. Consequently, if anyone else thinks of the idea, that isn’t a party to your NDA, then you won’t be able to stop them making use of it.

To expand on the difference between the sorts of things that can be intellectual property and mere ideas, consider the following:

  • Patents protect inventions, not formulae or discoveries or observations or scientific hypotheses or wish lists.
  • Copyright protects literary, musical and artistic works, not bare-bone plots or themes or three note musical motifs.
  • Trademarks protect signs to distinguish the goods and services of one trader from another, not an idea for a sign or a branding concept. For example, telling your graphic designer that you want “a logo that has a fish head a sailor and a yacht in it” is just idea for a logo.
  • Design registrations protect the particular visual appearance of a finished industrially applied article they don’t protect a general design concept for a product. For example, “a tea pot that looks like a baby elephant” is a concept for an industrial design. Representations of an actual tea pot that looks like a baby elephant with a number of views of it are required for an actual design registration.

So, if you know what you would like your invention to do, but you can’t explain how to do it, you probably merely have an idea, not an invention.

There’s no requirement that an invention must actually have been made or prototyped before it can be patented but there is a requirement that the patent specification must include enough information for someone else in your technical field to be able to practice it ‘without undue trial or experiment’.

When you’re in a position to provide that technical information, you can be pretty sure that you’ve got an invention, not just an idea!