You come up with a brilliant idea and are certain your invention will be a success. But how can you protect your intellectual property rights and prevent others from stealing your idea?
I've come up with the most amazing invention, it's a...
STOP. Don't tell me. I wouldn't dream of stealing your idea myself, but by telling people about your invention you're likely to end up losing it.
Thanks for stopping me, what should I do then?
First you need to be sure that it really is a good idea and that it is something people will want to buy.
There is no point wasting money on the next steps if the idea is never going to get off the ground.
It is also important to make sure that nobody has beaten you to it.
Just tell me where to start...
It is a good idea to try a thorough search of the internet first.
If nothing turns up, the next place to go is the Patent Office.
By searching the records you can find out if anyone else has already patented a similar idea - even if it is being used in a completely different way.
If they have, you need to go back to the drawing board.
You can either carry out the search yourself or employ a patent agent or patent attorney to do it for you. But you need to make sure the person you employ is registered.
If the search turns up nothing you can go ahead and apply for a patent.
Can you remind me what a patent actually does?
A patent is granted by a country, for example the UK, to an individual.
It gives that person the right to prevent anyone else from making, using, selling or importing the patented invention for up to 20 years.
But the details of the patent application are made public 18 months after it is filed.
Mandy Haberman, inventor of the Anyway Up cup for toddlers, says that if you are working in a slow-moving market you can afford to develop an idea and get it a long way down the line before applying for a patent.
But if it is fast-moving there could be a reason to get it patented. "It's annoying but, however clever an idea, you can be sure someone on the other side of the world is having the same idea," she says.
Can I get a single patent for the whole of Europe then?
Not yet, but if you take long enough over your invention the Community Patent, as it is known, could be up and running.
The Council of Ministers in Brussels has agreed in principle to set up a system that would allow inventors to fill out one application form and obtain a single patent, legally valid throughout the European Union, for far less than it costs for European patent protection at the moment.
There would also be a special central court to rule on patent disputes.
But this is unlikely to happen before about 2010.
Sounds promising but I've heard that patents aren't all they're cracked up to be?
Patents apply only to the country which has granted them, that means a UK patent is not valid in the United States and vice versa.
So you need to think carefully about where you need the protection.
Mrs Haberman says that most patent infringements come from US companies so she thinks a US patent is vital.
It is also true that, even within a country, patents are far from perfect as a way of protecting the lone inventor and his or her idea.
If the idea and prototypes were shared with big companies in the hope that they would help develop the product, the inventor could find rival products making their way onto the shelves in spite of the patent.
Surely you can stop that?
You can, but only by suing for patent infringement through the courts.
Not only is that extremely expensive, but you could end up losing your patent too because the court could decide to revoke it.
Let's say I've avoided the pitfalls, got my patent, my invention's ready - what then?
You can go into production yourself or license others to make the product for you and get paid royalties.
If you have got a UK patent it will last for 20 years.