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They say necessity is mother of invention. That was surely true for Johan Vaaler, who in 1899 decided he was tired of having to sew pages together to keep them organized. Voila, enter the paper clip. This wasn’t the case for Percy Spencer. He was a radar tube designer working at Raytheon who, while working in front of an active radar set, noticed the candy bar in his pocket started to melt. Exploring the phenomenon further, he placed corn kernels in front of the radar and behold, he ended up with the world’s first microwaved popcorn. He patented the microwave oven in 1945.

Whether by necessity or by accident, what should contractors do if they develop a unique tool to accomplish some portion of their work faster, easier or less expensively? How do they protect it from misappropriation by competitors, or by an errant employee? We are all familiar with the fact that in today’s internet-driven market, it has become very easy to reverse engineer and knock off an innovative product.

The best way to safeguard an invention is, of course, to register it with the appropriate government agency:the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Generally done with the assistance of a patent lawyer, the process is neither inexpensive or abbreviated. It could cost several thousand dollars and take 12 to 18 months. But, more importantly, this is not sufficient. Inventors must regularly monitor their patents to police possible infringers. Many folks think the USPTO does this, but it does not.

If a product is to be fully protected, its specifications should also be kept secret, meaning they are not easily accessible to third parties. And because any misappropriation is often the result of an insider revealing the secret, inventors should have employees with access to the item’s specifications sign confidentiality agreements.

All this is, of course, based on the presumption that a contractor is the inventor and as such own all rights to the invention. But be careful. If the inventor works for a company, he or she may have signed away rights to ownership of any invention developed while working there. Most companies require employees to acknowledge any invention is actually a work for hire created on behalf of the employer as part of one’s job. Even without a written agreement, if the item is created within the scope of one’s employment, it will likely be considered a work for hire and the inventor will have no further rights to it.

Inventions make our life and our work much easier. If you actually have one, protect it.

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