An Article in Schott, P.C.’s IP Law For Start-ups Series
By Stephen B. Schott
An inventor’s notebook can be a breeding ground for your creative ideas. Capturing your ideas and improving on them over time in a single notebook lets you revisit older ideas or combine ideas as you solve a problem. And if you think of the notebook like a brainstorming tool for your creations, you might find that just like in a brainstorming session, your best ideas come out in later pages after you have tackled a problem in more predictable ways. So go out and buy an inventor notebook to keep track of your inventions. Slide it in your backpack or briefcase and keep it handy. And once you do start one, keep the following in mind.
Legal Reasons to Keep an Inventor’s Notebook
A few years ago, an inventor notebook was a critical piece of documentation used to establish an inventor's date of invention. But with recent changes to US law that reward patents based on the first inventor who files their application, establishing a date of invention may be important but it is not as critical as it used to be.
Nevertheless, there are still important reasons to document your inventions in a notebook.
- Your notebook shows the date you conceived of the invention Let’s say someone in your workplace gets access to your notebook and copies your idea. Your notebook can serve as evidence of their theft. Remember: Patents are only awarded to inventors, not people who steal ideas and apply for the patents.
- The notebook acts as a log of who has seen your invention. As I mention below, you should record who has access to your workspace and notebook. This record can be critical if someone steals your idea. But be careful: any public disclosure can bar you from getting patents in non-U.S. countries and in the U.S., a public disclosure starts a clock ticking: Within one year of the disclosure, you must file a patent application or you will be barred from doing so in the future.
- Your notebook pages can help your patent attorney prepare a patent application. The sketches, tables, and writeup that you keep in the notebook can help your attorney draft a patent application.
Features of an Inventor's Notebook
- Permanent binding. Your notebook should have a permanent binding with no removable pages.
- Gridlines. For sketching and tables, gridlines can be helpful.
- Page numbers. You can number your pages or buy a notebook with pre-numbered pages.
- Protective cover. Your notebook will benefit from being hard-covered or at least having a a durable cover.
Format for Entering Information in the Notebook
- Use pen. I don’t draw well so this goes against my being. Everything that you put into your notebook should be permanent and uneraseable. If you make a mistake, simply line it out and keep writing. Don’t white it out or otherwise make your notebook unreadable.
- Do not tear pages from your notebook.
- Number your pages consecutively if they are not numbered.
- Do not leave gaps in your writing. If you are moving from one idea to another, draw a line after your last written line and begin the new idea. Blank spaces give the impression that you could add material later—you don’t want that impression.
- Date and sign every entry.
- Get a witness who is bound by a nondisclosure agreement to sign your entries.
What to Include in the Notebook
- Describe your invention in words and drawings. Answer the questions: (1) How does it work, (2) What materials does it use, (3) When did you think of it, (4) What other fields could it be used in?
- Label your figures “Fig. 1, Fig. 2" and use arrows and labels to refer to your drawings or steps in flowcharts.
- If you want to include a drawing or chart printed outside the notebook, make a circle or appropriate shape around it, date the shape, describe the attachment and permanently affix the page into the notebook. If you can leave a gap on one side of your attachment to show the blank page beneath it, that is best.
- Include variations on your idea, even if they are a little far-fetched. Today’s far-fetched idea may be widely adopted in the future.
- Make a record of the people who see your invention. As you do this, understand that any public disclosure can bar you from getting patents in non-U.S. countries and that in the U.S., a public disclosure starts a clock ticking: Within one year of the disclosure, you must file a patent application or you will be barred from doing so in the future. The takeaway: Be careful who you show your invention to.
Backup and Safety
- Backup your notebook. The notebook will be your best source of documentary evidence but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t back it up. Make copies of your pages and securely store them electronically or in paper.
- Keep your notebook safe. When not in use, keep your notebook somewhere private and secure.