Thoughts on startups by investors that
fund them & entrepreneurs that run them

I don’t file for patent protection often, but when I do, it’s provisional.

OK, the Most Interesting Man’s isn’t a lawyer, and his view is a bit simplistic. But he does have a point: in many cases, provisional patent applications can provide useful and inexpensive (if short term) protection for your brilliant new idea.Think of a provisional patent application as a placeholder. With it, you put everyone on notice that you claim to have invented some thing or process.  (Fun bonus: you can label the invention “patent pending” at that moment.)  You then have a year in which to file the rather daunting, full strength patent application. Assuming you do that properly, and that the patent is ultimately granted, your protection will relate back to the date on which the provisional application was filed.

Since you ultimately have to do the heavy lifting anyway, the extra step of filing a provisional might actually cost you time and money in the long run. So, what’s the point?  Well, in many cases, marking your turf quickly and cheaply can be smart.

Take, for example, this common situation:  An entrepreneur has invented a product or method that requires massive investment and infrastructure to turn into a profitable business.  The logical idea is to approach strategic investors and partners. Those are the folks who can buy or invest and execute quickly… and also are the ones most likely to imitate the idea after forgetting its source.  Meanwhile, the inventor hasn’t done the research to be 100% certain that the idea is totally novel, or even totally workable. So he’d like to defer the expense, time investment, and hassle of a full-blown application until after he’s tested the market a bit.

In cases like that, a provisional application can be like buying a cheap option.  If no one cares about your idea, or if it actually turns out be old news, you’re out very little. If done right (and if followed up on in time) the provisional patent should protect you in the event you really have hit on something big and novel.

No short blog post can do justice to all the complex issues inherent in the decision about when, whether and how to seek patent protection, and I strongly recommend consulting a lawyer to help you think it through.  But in those discussions, remember the words of the Most Interesting Man.

By the way, my fellow Gust blogger Antone Johnson has put out an excellent piece on overall IP issues for startups that I highly recommend; you might even guess who I’d recommend if you do happen to need some startup legal help.



All opinions expressed are those of the author,  and do not necessarily represent those of Gust.

Written by Bob Rice

user Bob Rice Managing Partner,
Tangent Capital

Bob is Managing Partner of Tangent Capital, a registered broker-dealer and merchant bank focused on alternative assets and strategies. He is the resident industry expert on early stage and other private investments for Bloomberg TV, appearing daily as Contributing Editor on “Money Moves.” Bob is a Director of asset management companies with over $2 billion in AUM. Bob began his career as a trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice and then became a partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, where his practice centered on financial products. He left the law in 1996 to found a 3D graphics technology startup that eventually became the publicly traded Viewpoint, provider of the web’s first “rich media” advertising platform. He has been an active angel investor and startup mentor since 2004. Along the way, Bob also served as the Commissioner of the Professional Chess Association and authored the business strategy book Three Moves Ahead.

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One thought on “I don’t file for patent protection often, but when I do, it’s provisional.”

  1. Bob, thanks for your kind words.  I share your view of provisional patent applications as a quick and cost-effective way of “marking your turf.”