The best thing since sliced bread.

Patents are one of the measures of the health of a creative economy. Countries with more patent registrations are assumed to be more innovative. Therefore they are in a better position to earn revenues from sales of a unique product or process or from licensing intellectual property in other markets or incorporating owned innovations in other company's processes.

A patent theoretically offers a monopoly to its owner to exploit the invention without direct competition for a specific period of time (usually a period of 20 years from the date the application is filed).

Filing your idea or invention for a patent can be a time consuming and expensive process. There is no guarantee that the patent will be granted. The application has to be examined to ensure that it meets the criteria necessary to secure the patent.
You can save yourself a lot of money and grief if you do the preliminary work yourself. You can search the IPONZ database for registered patents to ensure its novelty (in New Zealand). Once you are satisfied that the idea or invention that has been keeping you awake at night with wide eyed excitement about our pending wealth I recommend getting in touch with a patent attorney. They will be able to advise you about the correct steps needed to improve your chance of securing a patent.

Now, here's the thing.

Think carefully about whether you really need to patent your idea.
Let me phrase it a different way: What if you don't patent your idea? Will it prevent you from making it happen? If the patent isn't granted will you abandon the idea altogether. I guess it depends on a number of things. For example, if you are hoping to find venture capital to fund your idea you might also find that the VC will ask if you have a patent. If you say no they might then ask what's to stop them from doing it themselves. It's a tough question and the answer will depend on the stage at which you approach for VC funding. Most will expect that you have already proven the potential of the product in the market - in which case you might enjoy what is sometimes called the first mover's advantage - first into a niche market makes it less attractive for competitors. You might find this gives you better protection than a patent would. Customers are more likely to say 'That is a very cool brand/thing' and adopt it than ask if it is patented.

Another scenario to consider is patent infringement. Do you have the will or the wherewith all to do battle with the dastardly infringer? Legal battles are inevitably expensive and favour lawyers in every case. There's a reason they have a paralegal and research team working for them!

Perhaps the solution is really to innovate fast. Get your ideas to market fast - win market share and loyalty - then start again. Innovation is a cycle and the speed of innovation in most markets has made consumers fickle.

You could also end up with a patented product that no one wants. The inventor of the first sliced bread machine never made a cent from it because no one wanted sliced bread - it wasn't until his patent had expired that the idea was picked up by Wonder (makers of Wonderbread in the United States). There are no guarantees.

Unless the idea you have is earth shaking then, personally, I think it's not worth the bother. If your concept is a variation of a theme then definitely don't waste your time.

Finally, the true measure of the health of a creative economy is how easily ideas flow from conception to implementation. Instruments like patents restrict that flow by preventing ideas from being organically improved. That is why the open source revolution - where technology is freely distributed and improved by the market seems a much more attractive vision for the future, rather than an industrial age model.

You might find these resources useful:

Ministry of Economic Development - Patent Information
Baldwins - IP Lawyers

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