You need 5 things to get a patent. More on that below.

There Is Nothing like a Customer

Here is the key, the one thing you need to make a patent worth the investment: There must be a customer for your patented invention! Otherwise, you’ll have a “paper patent” collecting dust on the shelf instead of one displayed with pride in a hall of fame.

On May 7, 2010, I had the privilege of meeting with Rich Ernst just before he received the Creative Achievement (Inventor of the Year) Award from the Intellectual Property Law Association of Chicago (IPLAC). I am the one who nominated him for the award.

Rich Ernst worked for a Fortune 250 company in the construction products segment of their business. He invented fasteners, including the Tapcon self-tapping concrete anchor and the EZ-Ancor self-drilling drywall anchor. Rich was awarded dozens of patents over the course of his long, successful career. Every hardware store in the world has a section devoted to products invented by Rich Ernst.

Rich told me the story of his invention of the Tapcon anchor in the mid-1970s. He figured out how to design the threads in such a way that would they would “self-tap” their way into a hole bored in concrete or other masonry. And once installed with a manual or power screwdriver, they would hold!

Rich took his invention to the management of the company.

They shrugged. “We already have a lot of fasteners,” they said. “We don’t need another fastener.”

Tapcon, an Invention that Changed the World

Some weeks later, Rich was in a meeting with buyers from the telephone company. Particularly in that day, the phone company connected thousands and thousands of telephone wires to brick, concrete, and other masonry structures of houses and commercial buildings. That is not an easy connection to make.

Rich showed the phone company his new Tapcon self-tapping fasteners.

The phone company was excited! They were ready to place large orders.

Rich went back to the management of his company.

“Do you think you could find a way to make a million or so of these new fasteners for a big customer?”

This time, the answer was “yes.” The company filed a patent application and began making and selling the new fasteners.

The Tapcon fastener changed the world. Those who know fasteners accept no imitations.

A Patent that Proved Worth the Investment

United States Patent 3,937,119, titled “Masonry Anchor Device,” issued to inventor Rich Ernst and assigned to his employer, proved to be worthwhile. So did Rich’s many other patents on subsequent improvements and other novel fasteners.

Most importantly, here’s the key: There must be a customer for the patented invention.

Five Things You Need to Get a Patent

I promised to cover the 5 things you need to get a patent. Here they are:

  1. An invention, by which I mean something new, typically an improvement on an existing product. An idea is not enough. If you aren’t already working in the field of the invention—if you’re not “in the business”—you probably don’t know the state of the art or what is needed by customers. See Who Should Apply for Patent and What Should You Patent.
  2. Prompt action. The right order is this: First invent, then file for patent, and then make and sell the new, improved product. See When to Patent, When to Launch. The patent system encourages inventors to file as soon as the invention is “ready for patent.” If you dally, you lose.
  3. A good, thorough patent attorney. Yes, you can “patent it yourself,” but the odds are against you.
  4. Money. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office requires a filing fee and an issue fee. And patent attorneys charge for services.
  5. Persistence. Rich Ernst made a career of inventing fasteners. Julio Palmaz has 50 patents on cardiac stents; he mocks “serial inventors” who flit from one technology to another. Thomas Edison emphasized perspiration over inspiration. Your patent application will be rejected, initially, because that’s what patent examiners do. This is where the merits of the invention and the skill of the patent attorney will start to pay dividends.

Nothing Wrong with Low Tech

Rich Ernst told me another story before he went to the podium to accept the Inventor of the Year award.

Rich was on an airplane flying from the company’s headquarters in Chicago to his home in Southern California.

The man sitting next to him asked, “What do you do?”

“I design fasteners,” said Rich, returning the question, “What do you do?”

“I’m in tech,” said the man, turning up his nose and ignoring Rich for the rest of the flight.

Fast forward to the evening of the IPLAC inventor award dinner.

“If I have a customer,” said Rich to me before accepting the award, “I’ll take low tech any day of the week, and I’ll laugh all the way to the bank.”

Call Your Patent Attorney

Do you have an invention? Do you think there’s a customer for it? If so, call your patent attorney.


Beem Patent Law Firm represents specialized companies working in niche technologies, including computers, software, communications, mechanical devices, oil, chemicals, medical devices, and pharmaceuticals. The Firm focuses on patent and trademark matters in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the federal courts, with associates in every major city of the nation and the world.