Here is some text I prepared for the Wired.com “Patent an Invention” Wiki :
Unfortunately, the patent system, both in the US and worldwide, is quite complex and it is surprisingly easy to accidentally invalidate an otherwise valuable patent portfolio. Bearing this in mind here are some initial tips:
1. Do not disclose your idea to the public before consulting with a patent expert. “Disclosing” may involve detailing your idea on a blog, sending a design to 3rd party manufacturers or selling a product. Most patent experts or attorneys offer free initial consultations. While there are certain safety nets under US patent law, these do not apply worldwide – if you wish to sell your product or idea in London, Delhi or Shanghai its best to err on the side of caution.
2. The patent system has several built in time-limits which must be observed. For example, from an initial patent filing you have 12 months in which to file related applications in different countries worldwide. If you miss these time limits you may be stuck with a US or Estonian patent when actually your service has really taken off in Mexico. Again, this requires you to do some research or obtain an expert/attorney opinion.
3. Obtaining your own patent and potentially infringing someone else’s patent are the two different sides to the patent game. Each will need to be considered when releasing a new product or service. In most cases they can be considered independently.
4. Infringing someone else’s patent is not the end of the world. You can ask for consent to use the claimed technology (for free or for a licensing fee). Many companies bundle licenses and technical help together as one service, implementing someone else’s technology as part of a bigger (and in its own right patentable) solution can be cheaper and easier than recreating the technology from scratch (why reinvent the wheel when designing an electric car?).