What is a poor man’s patent?

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Getting a patent can cost inventors a lot of time and money, and for some, it might be too much of an investment. You may have wondered: what is a poor man’s patent and if it is a cost-effective way of protecting your invention or idea? We will analyze the concept of a poor man’s patent and see how it can protect your invention idea.

What is a poor man’s patent?

The idea behind the poor man’s patent is quite simple. The essence of it is that the inventor describes the patent or an idea, puts it into an envelope, and then mails it to themselves via certified mail. For sending the envelope, any other proof-of-delivery mail methods may be useful, as long as you can verify the date of receiving. An envelope must remain unsealed and sent in the hope that it can provide proof that the invention was in your hands at the time of posting, and could thus be used against other competitors to protect the invention.

But does the protection of a poor man’s patent work? Can it be used as an effective, secure, and cost-free (except for mailing costs, of course) method of protecting your patent? It might sound like a good idea, but it is probably not the best way to completely protect your patent and make it competition-proof.

Does a poor man’s patent protect your invention?

Poor man’s patents were, a few years, or decades ago quite popular. They were a way of protecting copyrights. That is because they are much cheaper than to file the patent to the USPTO. Additionally, a poor man’s patent requires much less time for preparing all the documentation that is necessary for getting a patent approved.

But a poor man’s patent is not at all a credible source of protection. All it does is provide some minor proof of you owning an idea for the patent, in case someone else filed a patent, and could potentially be the leverage to battle for the patent. The truth is that a poor man’s patent is not a legal (or an official) procedure, and it doesn’t work since 2013 when the “first to file” system began, instead of the “first to invent” system that was in place until then.

With the earlier system, the patent was claimed by the person who was the first to invent the patent. That had to be supported by specific legal evidence in case a competitor was trying to claim the patent, and that is where a poor man’s patent would come in. During the time that the system was in place, there were many disputes about patents, and there were more ways than one that an inventor could use to “prove” his rights for the copyright. A poor man’s patent was one of them. But even then, such patents were not deemed as the ultimate proof for the patent rights and were rarely taken seriously.

The idea behind the patent is that the person behind the concept would “swear behind,” which is a term used for the inventor providing evidence to the USPTO that he should be credited for the patent as his idea dates back before the date of a competitor, thus gaining legal rights for the copyright. A poor man’s patent was a way to “swear behind,” although it was not a proper and official way of doing so.

The Patent Reform Act changed the rules in 2013

In 2013, the US government passed the Patent Reform Act, a document that changed the system for filing the patents. The new act changed the laws in such a way that the inventors were credited patents based on the “first to file” rule instead of the “first to invent” rule. That meant that the inventor who was the first to file the patent was eventually the person who got the patent in the end. That act was a blow for already unreliable poor man’s patents and made them even less of a viable option.

The “swearing behind” was eliminated, and it essentially turned into the race towards the patent office. That is why inventors nowadays are often advised to file patents as soon as possible to gain protection. The act from 2013 meant that poor man’s patents were made even more obsolete as the process of getting a patent now disregards the “swearing behind” and shifted the focus towards the filing dates.

There are better ways of protecting your patent than a poor man’s patent, but it can be used in some cases nonetheless. Their most significant appeal is that they are almost entirely free, and take much less time than the whole process of filing for a patent. But a poor man’s patent can cost you in the long-term, and it might come back to haunt you later on. Why is that?

Why a poor man’s patent is not the best option for protecting your patent

The biggest obstacle for such a way of protection is that it is not a formal process for protecting your patent, and can sometimes shed a bad light on you. It carries little to no legal weight, despite it being a very cost-effective way of protection. There are many better ways to secure your patent. In the end, you should in no way depend on your poor man’s patent, even if it might be in your mind, a good idea of proving your rights to the patent. The best way is still to file a patent with the USPTO, even if it costs money and time. If you are sure about your patent, then the best way is not to hang around too much.

Even if it might be a double-edged sword to file a patent too quickly, it is still better than to depend on a poor man’s patent, which gives you little to no legal ground, especially in the current system. While a quick patent filing can ensure you the rights to the patent, it can also mean that you submit an incomplete application with missing details. Since the reform act of 2013, the use of poor man’s patents no longer an option. 

Additionally, a poor man’s patent is not considered as reliable as the inventor can manipulate it in many ways. For one, an inventor might unseal the envelope and change details or information, and then seal it again and mark it as unsealed. The use of poor man’s patents is pretty much extinct.

Alternatives to poor man’s patents

What are some other options for a poor man’s patent? Well, the best option is undoubtedly to file the patent as soon as possible to get the “patent pending” status. At least then, you will be able to be sure that your patent is protected to an extent by the filing date, which is now almost the only reliable way to protect the patent. The costs for getting a patent-pending status for your invention can vary from $60 to $240, but those can rise.

The costs can go even higher up if you decide to get a patent attorney. These can cost you thousands of dollars, but at least you will be working with a professional, and you will be sure that your patent is as secure as possible. Hiring an attorney is even recommended in the patent to get the filing process done as quickly as possible. The attorney can help you with papers and can give you advice for protecting your patent in the best way possible.

Another possible alternative is a “registered design,” which protects the look of your invention, or the design. It protects the appearance of a device. Therefore, if another product looks similar to your own, you can use the “registered design” or the “patent design” to protect your invention.


A poor man’s patent is a concept that sometimes protects patents. It involves the inventor mailing the written details of the patent to himself, and then leave it unsealed. That envelope can then be the proof for the patent on the day of receiving the envelope. While it was sometimes useful under the “first to invent” system, it is almost extinct and rarely used under the current “first to file” rule, which prefers inventors who come first to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Inevitably, if you are serious about your invention, then you cannot go wrong with filing the patent to the USPTO. Even though it might take a lot of time, money, and effort, it will at least ensure that your idea has some protection. Hiring an attorney might also be a good option if you can afford one, as he can make your life much more comfortable with your patent.

Are you ready to become an inventor?

Getting your idea out of your head and into your hands is only the first in a long set of steps towards becoming a successful inventor.

First Steps To A Successful Invention

At Invention Therapy, we believe that the power of the internet makes it easier than you think to turn your invention idea into a reality. In most cases, you can build a prototype and start manufacturing a product on your own. Changing your way of thinking can be difficult. Being an inventor requires you to balance your passion with the reality of having to sell your products for a profit. After all, if we can't make a profit, we won't be able to keep the lights on and continue to invent more amazing things!

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