There are lots of decisions to make along the way from product concept to product reality. Should you put together a team, or do as much as you can on your own? Do you use CAD for prototyping, or do you have one manufactured the traditional way? Do you manufacture domestically or outsource?

These are all complex questions to consider, but perhaps the most basic one comes right at the beginning of your process: should you file for a patent?

Obviously, having a patent is the only ironclad way to ensure that your invention is legally protected, should someone challenge your ownership or try to copy your idea. At the same time, hiring a patent attorney to help you file your application—which is usually, though not necessarily always, advisable—can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $16,000, depending on the complexity of your product.

So how do you decide whether to take the risk with your product, or fork over the money to have it patented?

Consider how much commercial value your product potentially has.

This is a fairly straightforward question: is your product something you plan on selling to the public and (hopefully) making a profit from? Or is it more something that will just be helpful to you and people you’re close to? If it’s something that you don’t see fitting into the marketplace, it might be smart to save your money and forgo a patent.

But if you do think your product might have commercial value—even if that might be only in the future—think long and hard about forgoing a patent.

Consider trade secret protection instead of a patent.

If your invention is a process, formula, instrument, design, or commercial method that allows you or your business to gain an economic advantage over other businesses, there’s a chance your product might qualify for trade secret protection. Coca-Cola’s formula is a trade secret; so is the recipe for Mrs. Fields’ Chocolate Chip Cookies.

In some ways, trade secret protection is more desirable than a patent. You don’t have to apply for it, so it can take place immediately—although in order to be legal, it must fit certain qualifications. Patents, on the other hand, can take years to move through the application process.

Trade secrets never expire, unlike patents, which expire after 20 years. And you can protect it simply by requiring those you work for to sign non-disclosure agreements.

However, there are down sides to trade secrets, too. If someone can figure out your secret independently, using reverse engineering or another legal method, you’re out of luck. Also, if you intend to patent your trade secret, you’ll have to do it within 12 months of originating your complete idea—otherwise, you have no claim to the patent.

Patent your product yourself.

Although this is a risky proposition for any invention with major commercial or industry value, lots of people file patents on their own. The key is to first educate yourself on how intellectual property and the patent system works—there are lots of resources for this online, from e-books to online courses.

After you’ve gotten a good idea of what the process requires and what steps you have to take, it’s time to start. The easiest way to get going is to file a provisional application, a non-binding patent that will protect your idea while you work on it, for up to 12 months. Because this application has no set format, it’s easier for non-patent professionals to work with.

The non-provisional application is the more difficult one, and it’s for this that individuals usually hire patent attorneys. However, it is, of course, possible to file this on your own too, saving thousands of dollars that you can put toward product development or marketing.

If you feel a little nervous about doing this on your own, but still don’t want to hire an attorney for the entire process, you can always bring one in after you’ve done all you feel you’re capable of. This way, you’ll still save money, but you’ll have the benefit of a professional opinion.

At Pivot, we love helping people take their ideas from concept to reality. Check out our services, which include product design, product manufacturing, and business development, among others. If you think we can help you, contact us!