Invention harvesting, or invention mining, is an important process for any company looking to build or expand a patent portfolio.

Invention harvesting involves the collection and documentation of inventions and ideas from an inventor or R&D team, and is the first step on the road to obtaining patent protection for these inventions and ideas.

Importantly, invention harvesting is often best performed as an active process, usually driven and guided by an in-house patent attorney. Passively waiting for inventors to suggest ideas for patenting is likely to lead to fewer patent applications being filed, and more potentially patentable ideas being passed over. This active process could take the form of regular meetings between inventors and an in-house or external patent attorney. Face-to-face or (more likely these days) virtual meetings can be useful in capturing or even generating ideas and inventions, and can save time and effort compared to communicating in writing.

By actively seeking out potentially patentable ideas, and prompting inventors and R&D teams to come up with new ideas, the widest possible range of new inventions can be recorded, ultimately leading to the strongest possible patent portfolio.

Another tip for invention harvesting is that the process does not need to be limited to inventions that inventors or R&D teams are actively working on. It could include old ideas that were abandoned but which might still be commercially relevant to competitors, or it could include ideas that have not yet been worked on, based on “blue sky thinking” about where projects and research might develop in the future. When looking to protect potential future developments, care should, however, be taken not to hinder the prospects of future and potentially stronger patent applications which might be filed once the idea has been developed further.

Recording ideas during invention harvesting can be as simple as making notes of a meeting, but in practice it is usually better to have a structured invention disclosure form that can be filled out for each idea. This will help to ensure that all of the relevant details are recorded properly, making it easier to turn ideas into patent applications. An invention disclosure form does not need to be long – in fact it might be better to keep the form short to lower the barrier to an invention being recorded, and the necessary information can often be recorded in just a single row of a table or spreadsheet. The form itself might record some background of the invention; brief details of the invention and any essential features; an indication of the advantage provided or problem solved by the invention; and some details of any relevant publications (existing or planned) that the inventors are aware of, either from competitors or from within the company.

An invention disclosure form can also be useful to record details of who the inventors are, or at least who the idea has come from, at the time of the invention harvesting. This information can easily get lost later, especially if there are a lot of ideas being generated in a short time. Other useful details of the invention, including particularly relevant prior art, can be recorded later if the idea is taken further.

Once inventions have been harvested, the next step is to focus on the ideas and inventions that are most important to try and protect. These could be the best ideas, or they could be those which are most important to the business, or even just those most likely to cause issues for competitors. Led by a patent attorney, with input from inventors where necessary, a patent application can then be drafted for any ideas deemed to be worth trying to patent.

In theory, a patent application can be prepared for a well-harvested invention by a different patent attorney to the one who did the original harvesting. This can sometimes enable an external patent attorney to do the drafting work, whilst in-house counsel performs the invention harvesting. In this case a meeting between the inventors and the drafting attorney can often be useful as a follow-up to the initial harvesting meeting.

It is worth remembering that more than one idea can be included in a single patent application, particularly where ideas are only speculative. If the invention harvesting has been done correctly, the drafting of a patent application should be made easier, and often less input from the inventors is needed if the invention has been well recorded. This can help to streamline the drafting process, as waiting for input on a draft patent application from different inventors can often delay the process.

If the inventors have been recorded during the initial invention harvesting process then any necessary assignments can be drawn up and executed whilst the application is being drafted, further helping to streamline the process of filing a patent application.

In summary, invention harvesting is an important part of the patenting process, the importance of which is sometimes overlooked. Without this step, many potentially patentable ideas might be lost or missed, and it is therefore advisable for an in-house patent attorney to conduct regular invention harvesting meetings.

If you are involved in invention harvesting, it may also be worthwhile trying to educate your R&D teams about what types of invention might be patentable, and encourage them to keep a record of ideas between invention harvesting meetings, or even to actively contact their patent attorney when they have an idea rather than waiting until a meeting when the idea might get forgotten or overlooked.