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By John W. Schoen Senior Producer
msnbc.com

Q: I am the proud owner of a new Design Patent as of May 27,2003, Pat.# D0475090. My question to you is, in your opinion, what would my next step be? I've been receiving all sorts of information from different companies claiming that, if I paid them a fee, they would help find a manufacturer, and some prospective buyers for my product. Is this a scam versus being legit or what? I have obtained various targets for this product that's already in production as we speak, and I'm not sure what's in store next. I welcome your input.Bennie M., Houston

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A: My father, who spent much of his career running manufacturing companies, used to say that a consultant is a guy who asks to borrow your watch, tells you the time and then sends you a bill.

There are plenty of companies that troll for business using public databases like the U.S. Patent Office, and some of them may be reputable. So are some of the attorneys who chase ambulances. Or "mortgage insurance" companies that flooded my mailbox after I refinanced.

The question you're asking, which I would be too, is: If these people are so good, why do they need to troll for unsolicited business using mass mailings? (Sounds a lot like e-mail spam, doesn't it?)

You did all the hard work: You came up with the idea (for a new ornamental design for signs, if I read the Patent Office database correctly); you invested in developing it, filing the paperwork, paying an attorney, etc. Now someone is offering you -- what, exactly?

Sure, you may need to hire someone with marketing skills you don't have to expand your patent's use. You may even want to hire a patent lawyer who specializes in licensing ideas like yours. But the old, reliable method of finding these people is best: Word of mouth, networking, maybe even a want ad in the paper.

And, if I'm reading this right, and your patent is already in production, shouldn't you be collecting royalties from the people already using it?

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