How to patent your idea
Image credit: Adobe Stock / Tiko
Patents are the ultimate validation. There’s nothing like seeing your vision and idea recognized as truly innovative by your peers, your employer, and the industry at large. But patents are also tough to come by. Only about half of the patent applications get approved, and some researchers can go their entire careers without one.
In this article
- Why patents matter
- Creativity (still) reigns supreme
- Enjoy the process
- Insider tips from Adobe’s patent centurions
And then there are the Adobe patent centurions: innovation-obsessed researchers who each have more than 100 patents to their name. With creative industries racing to innovate faster than ever, who better to explain why patents are so important in this environment, how to build a strong application, and what it takes to keep coming up with fresh ideas.
Why patents matter
For Hailin Jin, senior principal analyst within Adobe Research — a team of research scientists, engineers, artists, and designers with the goal of innovating for maximum impact for all creators. The Adobe Research teams shape early-stage ideas into usable technologies, with many of their breakthroughs incorporated directly into Adobe products.
Jin’s patents straddle the intertwined worlds of research and product design. Academia is more of an open-source field, Jin explains, where your knowledge and research becomes accessible to people around the world immediately, who then have the ability to use it freely in their own research. Patents, on the other hand, are proprietary, or under exclusive legal right of the inventor or creator, to protect your intellectual property.
As per the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), “Patents protect the interests of inventors whose technologies are truly ground-breaking and commercially successful by ensuring that an inventor can control the commercial use of their invention.” Simply put, the idea or tech is still going out into the world to enable that same collaboration – but with the caveat of exclusivity for a period of time.
“One isn’t better than the other,” stresses Jin. “I’m a researcher first, but I also get to see my results help real end-users who use Adobe’s products each day”.
An added bonus for researchers is that successful patent applications beget further funding. The revenue generated by patent-protected inventions is often used to finance new R&D projects, creating a loop of recognition, revenue, and progress.
Creativity (still) reigns supreme
To obtain a patent, researchers must prove that their technology is innovative and novel (different from all previous inventions) and easy to detect (you’ll need to prove a competitor is using your intellectual property without permission in order to protect it).
Creative, and fresh ideas remain paramount. “You need to ensure the work or idea you’re exploring is new and compelling for potential customers,” says Zhe Lin, a fellow senior principal scientist at Adobe Research and an Adobe Patent Centurion. “In our case that means focusing on projects that will help businesses work better, faster, more creatively, or best case, all three.”
But innovative ideas can prove subjective, especially if it’s your own that you’ve poured time, effort, and energy into. Adobe Research teams are fortunate to be able to work alongside an internal patent committee that specializes in assessing the business value of new technologies – with an unbiased eye. This helps give researchers a gut-check on their patent applications, ensures that it’s thoroughly completed, and allows them to focus more energy on product development and exploratory projects, leaving the business side of patent applications to the experts.
Having a team behind them helps young researchers avoid one of the biggest mistakes in the patent application process: going it alone. Both the Adobe patent committee and US Patent and Trademark Office assess applications with a fine-toothed comb, and the key to successfully obtaining a patent is to make sure you’ve fulfilled every application requirement to the highest possible standard.
“Make sure to validate your thinking with colleagues who have been there before, or experts who can sense-check the non-technical elements of your applications,” adds Lin. “Imagine spending weeks on your application only to have it rejected when all it needed was just a few more hours of work and some insight from your peers.”
Enjoy the process
While first timers might view the patent application process as tedious, Jin genuinely enjoys it. Every time he goes through it, he finds new appreciation for the hard work and thinking that went into his research. With each new patent also comes with new accolades and recognition, something that never gets old – and a right to see the technology you’ve built be put out into the world.
Jin still remembers his first patent at Adobe as a junior researcher, when he discovered a new way to create composite images. Inspired by a technique from the 1980s, he was able to transform the source images for the composite into lines of pixels, breaking a two-dimension problem into a much simpler 1D challenge and making the images easier to combine and manipulate.
“Getting that patent was an immensely validating moment. For one, I had resolved a challenge that had been around for over 20 years, and secondly, I got to see my idea directly integrated in Adobe Photoshop, where it is used to this day,” he reflects.
As for Lin, one of his most memorable patents came in 2017, when he joined forces with his colleagues, and intern to create a neural network that helps with automatically segmenting main subjects in an image. Thanks to their model, content creators can easily cut the main subject out of a digital image and perform tasks such as object editing and background replacement.
Insider tips from Adobe’s patent centurions
Every research project is different, but there are certain principles that should guide every patent application. Lin and Jin share their top tips for applicants:
Do your homework — As researchers, we always need to keep one eye on the future. By understanding which innovations are coming down the line and how customers will use them, we keep our R&D projects relevant and ensure they respond to real needs emerging in the real world.
Track the process — Every patent application includes both your final idea and a breakdown of the thinking that got you there. Make sure to track your research every step of the way. After all, it’s often in the process that approvers will look for proof of originality, business value, and innovative thinking.
Originality is king — Many ideas have business value, but few are truly original. Don’t fall into the trap of focusing on commercialization at the expense of innovation. Instead, focus on exploring new ideas and approach problems in new ways. The opportunities to patent will come more easily than you think.
Lin has one final piece of advice for first-time patent applications: remember that being original doesn’t always mean developing an entirely new technology. Many patents are awarded to researchers who enhanced an existing idea or applied a known technology to a new field, like the use of Computer Vision to help Adobe Photoshop users make detailed image edits.
“It’s rare that we solve big business challenges overnight. In most cases, solving those big problems means chipping away at them one innovation at the time,” adds Lin. “Stay focused with your research and patent applications, and at the pace of innovation we’re seeing today there will be no shortage of opportunities to make your mark.”
Learn more about career opportunities or internships at Adobe research here.