Understanding patent law
A boy was once asked by his teacher whether he understood how electricity worked. He replied that he did. The teacher said, 'Well, now there are two people who understand electricity: you, and God.' There's an analogy there with patent law - except, for God, substitute lawyer (naturally). Because the first thing to know about patent law is that if you can understand it, you are a patent lawyer. If you're not one, and you need to understand patent law in detail, it's time to get one. From the expression of an individual application up to the international agreements relating to patents, every aspect of this subject is complicated and riddled with pitfalls. But don't unplug the computer yet: it's certainly possible to grasp the basics with a degree of research. That, in turn, ought to help you decide whether you need to talk to an intellectual property professional and what you need to talk to them about.
The particulars of patent law relate to a wide range of considerations starting with the invention process long before the application is filed and extending to any potential infringement years after the patent has been granted. The laws on infringement aren't just for potential copycats to observe, but also the patent owner - it's as serious to abuse a patent as to infringe it and in the US any accusation of the latter must be accompanied by a formal legal assessment. There are also laws associated with licensing your patent to others - a particularly important area since you are more likely to make money from this than from litigation against infringers.
It's also important to think ahead to the international market when you are filing your domestic application. US patent law has its idiosyncrasies but efforts are being made to harmonize it with international laws. For variations and more detail, check on the websites of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov) or the World Industrial Property Organization (www.wipo.int) The latter manages the Patent Co-operation Treaty which about 100 countries have signed up to (and the details of which are constantly changing, so it is worth looking it up) and via which a US patent application can be extended to other countries. There are also individual country offices and smaller associations. These include the Eurasian Patent Office (EAPO), which covers the countries of the former Soviet Union and only accepts applications in Russian; and the Office Africain de la Propriete Industrielle (OAIP) which accepts applications in English and French.