In order to get a patent on an idea or a design for a product or an improvement upon an existing product, a patent application must be filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). This takes time, effort, money, and most often a legal representative, costing even more money.
For years, it has been circulated that a "poor man's" copyright or patent exists. The idea is that by writing out a thorough description of your product or idea, and then mailing it to yourself. The process of sending it through the United States Postal Service (USPS) is supposed to establish the date of invention, so that if someone else "steals" your idea, or later invents it on their own, you can present "proof" that you came up with the idea first. The idea behind it is the proof is in a sealed envelope with a date showing when the postage was cancelled. Sounds awesome, right?
Well, it would be if it worked! There is no provision in the law that provides such protection, and as such, it would not hold up in court against someone who had filed the patent. Simply mailing yourself a description of your invention will never replace formal registration for patent, copyright, or trademark. If this were the case, we could have people suing each other left and right for copyright, trademark, and infringement claims. We’d also be bogging down the postal service with lots of canceled mail to our own addresses.
How the "Poor Man's' Patent Could Hurt You
By "filing" a poor man's patent, you are possibly admitting you haven not been pursuing your invention or the process of developing it. All the "patent" does is show that you had an idea at some point or another. It doesn't show that you've taken any action to further develop the idea.
If you invent something and then do nothing with it, you may be forfeiting your claim to any intellectual property. In order to be worthy of a patent, your invention must be developed, that is, actually put into a prototype stage at least. You will not be rewarded for laziness.
What Should You Do Instead?
Instead of attempting to file a Poor Man's Patent and risking your claim to intellectual property rights, you should develop your invention. If an actual patent application is too expensive for you to handle, you can try to get the process started with a provisional patent application.
Work with your local Small Business Administration to put together a business plan to get financing either through a traditional lender or investors who would be interested in your product. This will help fund development along with the patent process.
Reach out to crowd funding websites like KickStarter.com and use the power of social media to raise capital for your project, to get you through until you can file for the patent you need. Put together a business plan, and look for ways to reach out to investors who may be interested in your product. They may back you with the capital you need to launch.
The bottom line is that unless it is on record with the USPTO, you will not be able to make any intellectual property infringement claims. Do not cut corners with any aspect of the invention process. It could make the process more difficult and time consuming, but in the end, it will be far more rewarding.