U.S. Patent law requires patent applications to be filed by certain deadlines or they will be barred from patenting no matter how great the invention. That means your invention(s) must have been conceived prior to anyone else in the U.S. AND your patent application(s) must be filed within a year after the invention was described in a publication, patented anywhere else, used publicly or sold in this country. Therefore, if you disclose your invention to others, e.g. at a trade show, in a brochure or otherwise, and then wait over a year to file a patent application it will probably be too late. Similarly, if you, a friend or anyone else publicly use your invention, or put it on sale (which can include offers for sale, even if no sale is actually made), a patent application must be filed within a year or you will be barred from getting a patent.
Moreover, if you are interested in patent protection outside the US, an even earlier filing might be required. For instance, many foreign countries require applications be filed before anything is done to make an invention known to the public (called the “absolute novelty requirement”). While most countries will give foreign patent applications the filing date of a previously filed US application (if filed within a year of the US application), you would still need to file a US application before publicly disclosing your idea anywhere.
Of course, there are often specific exceptions to the above. If you have any questions or wish to discuss how this may impact your company, please contact an attorney at Wood Phillips.