Whether you work full-time developing new healthcare advances or are simply a person with a fresh, new perspective on how to deliver better patient care, conceptualizing an innovative healthcare solution is an exciting first step in the journey to bringing an idea to life. But intellectual property (IP) — which is the legal term for your idea or creation — can be an intimidating subject matter to most people, seasoned or novice. In fact, the thought of obtaining legal protection for an idea can be daunting enough to discourage many from starting the journey in the first place.

But while ultimately determining whether your idea is patentable may require legal expertise, there’s are a host of other questions and steps an inventor can take long before hiring a lawyer or starting the patent-application process. For example, inventors can start by asking the following questions:

1. Do You Own Your Idea?
The answer may not be as simple as you think. While, in general, an idea’s originator is its owner, ownership rights can be assigned before or after a new innovation through various legal contracts. It’s important to note that certain industries, such as higher education and healthcare, as well as many publicly-traded and private companies have internal policies relating to works created during a person’s employment (known as “work for hire”), which could result in an employer actually being the legal owner of your idea — particularly if your idea relates to your line of work and was conceptualized or improved upon during work hours or while using work resources. Before thinking about seeking legal protection, make certain that your idea is actually your own by consulting your employment contract.

2. Is My Idea Patentable?
Generally speaking, in order for an invention to be patentable, an idea needs to have a practical purpose, or “utility,” while still being a novel and inventive concept. That’s the basic starting point. If your idea meets that minimum criteria, it’s now time to research your concept, making sure that nothing too similar to your idea has been published or invented. To start, try searching for your idea in public databases such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the European Patent Office and using Google Patent Search. Didn’t find your invention idea anywhere else? That’s a positive sign, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your idea is certainly patentable. An experienced patent attorney will often know how and where to search for competing patents in a way that most new inventors don’t and may uncover prior art that you failed to find. Plus, there are novelty loopholes, and there is also the risk that another person may have filed for the same, or very similar, idea first but their application is still making its way through the patent system and so is not appearing in the databases you searched.

(Credit: Edison Nation Medical)3. Can Someone Steal My Idea?
When you’re holding onto the next big idea in healthcare innovation, it’s natural to want to share your thoughts and vision with your colleagues, friends and pretty much anyone in between. But it’s important to understand the potential consequences of oversharing your novel idea — especially if you have not filed for legal protection. Someone else can file a patent on your idea, or you could unintentionally take on a “co-inventor” by incorporating a friend’s advice for a slight product improvement. This is where a nondisclosure (or confidentiality) agreement plays a vital role. When it’s signed by multiple parties, no one can legally disclose details and/or benefit from your invention unless you specifically say otherwise.

4. How Can I Protect My Idea?
Depending on the kind of idea you’re looking to protect, patent protection is not your only option. There are actually two other types of intellectual property in addition to patents: trademarks and copyrights. Trademarks generally protect logos, symbols and/or names of products from others who are then unable to use its likeness to possibly mislead consumers. And copyrights stop others others from copying, adapting, distributing renting and/or performing another’s work without permission. While patent protection will likely provide more peace of mind than that of a trademark or copyright, it’s important to understand all of your options before committing to the lengthy (and costly) patent application process.

It’s also important to note that if you disclose your idea or invention publically more than a year before you apply for patent protection, it may make it impossible for you to obtain patent protection later on. In a legal context, there are a variety of ways you can expose your idea to the public — through disclosure, use, or offering a version of your product for sale prior to patenting, according to the USPTO. Publishing a detailed article or blog post, giving a presentation about your invention at a public event, and/or sharing your idea on a crowdsourcing website are just a few examples of the different forms public disclosure can take.

5. What Do I Want to Do with My Invention?
There are a few different ways in which an inventor can ultimately commercialize their invention idea, including starting a company, selling the IP, or licensing the IP. While there are certainly many successful companies that have been started around ideas that are not patented or patentable, these are often companies where the execution of the idea is equally -- if not more -- critical than the IP of the idea itself. This is particularly true for a service or retail business (think Nordstrom, SuperCuts, your local tax accountant) versus a product business. However, there are many companies that do rely on the strength of their patent for success: Apple, Google, Pandora, and many more.

But what if you don’t want to start a company? Or what if your idea relates more to a novel tweak to an existing product? Or if your idea is a “one trick pony” - i.e., a single product that would better fit into a larger product assortment? Inventors in this situation will often sell or license their IP to a larger manufacturer who has the sales and marketing, manufacturing and distribution necessary to successfully bring the idea to life.  But as an inventor, you can only sell or license the IP to your idea if you are, in fact, the actual owner of that IP and so in these cases, obtaining patent protection is imperative. In fact, the term “license” means to give permission for another party (the “licensee”) to use your IP, often in exchange for a pre-determined fee or licensing royalty. For instance, a medical inventor who licenses his or her invention to a medical manufacturer generally earns a percentage of total sales from that manufacturer.

While intellectual property can be an intimidating topic, the more an inventor knows, the more empowered that person will be when bringing an innovative idea to life. Undoubtedly, there are many issues related to determining whether an idea or invention can be patented, and you will likely have more questions than answers. That’s why it’s important to rely on trusted sources for guidance and information, as it will become an essential step in a novice inventor’s road to success.