Documenting New Ideas

Documenting New Ideas

Date: November 13, 2007

Documenting new ideas is not just good practice. It may be absolutely critical if you intend on getting a patent and then enforcing it. This is because patent laws in the United States are based on the “first to invent rule.” Clause 101 of US Code 35 states:

“Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefore..”

What this means for you the inventor is that you want a set of airtight documentation to prove your idea is yours. But how do you go about doing this? With all the misconceptions and speculation about what is legally acceptable proof, it helps to separate fact from fiction. Let’s begin by dispelling some popular idea documentation myths.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. “Hey man! Turns out we can skip all that paperwork and waiting and huge cost! My buddy told me all we gotta do is mail a bunch of notes and sketches to ourselves and if anyone tries to rip our idea, we just bring the mail to court!”

This is known as the “poor man’s patent” and it to put it bluntly, it isn’t. Eugene Quinn, patent attorney and founder of, had this to say:

It is absolutely critical for everyone to understand that mailing your idea to yourself will do absolutely nothing to give you protection. All that mailing your work to yourself will prove is that you had it as of a certain date, and that is only assuming there is a postmark on the envelope (which does not always happen) and the envelope is not opened. It provides no rights whatsoever.

So if mailing yourself your work isn’t sufficient documentation, what is? The answer is something called a logbook. A logbook is essentially an inventor’s journal. It is where the inventor keeps track of his progress and dates each step. A logbook proves that you came up with your idea at a certain date and displayed due diligence in pursuing it. However, there are some definite standards you should adhere to when keeping a logbook. This will help ensure that your documentation looks legitimate to patent examiners.

That being said, here are some conventions you should follow when documenting your invention in a logbook.

1) You should start your logbook as soon as you think of an idea. Write down detailed records of key concepts, test results, and anything else having to do with the creation of your idea. This is the type of material that belongs in a logbook.

2) While there are pre-made logbooks for sale, you can easily make your own. Be sure to use a bound notebook, however, and not a loose-leaf. The reason is that bound notebooks make it hard to conceal the fact that pages were added or taken out.

3) Number each page consecutively. This establishes that the progress you made on your idea took place in a sequential order that anyone with common sense can observe. When one notebook is full, begin a new one and specify that this notebook is a continuation of the last one. There should be no visible gaps in your record keeping.

4) Each entry you write should be signed and dated by you and anyone else who participated in that step of the invention process. If at all possible, get a notary public to sign as well.

5) Give each entry a header with information about what is contained in it. For example, the date, subject, number of participants, witnesses, etc.

6) Include records of everything you do. When in doubt, assume that it is best to include it. Do not just include successful test results, for example. If you exclude negative findings or tests, the patent examiner may decide that you “cherry-picked” only the good stuff and reject your application.

7) Any and all other participants in the invention process need to have their roles disclosed. The importance of this convention cannot be stressed enough. If you omit an inventor’s name from an invention he helped create, it is considered fraud.

8) Any loose materials like drawings, photos, or sketches should be signed, dated, and cross-referenced to the notebook entry they pertain to. It is best to tape or staple this material to the notebook entries in question.

In closing, these are some good, common-sense conventions to follow when documenting new ideas. Adhering to them will give you a much greater chance of receiving and maintaining patent protection.