Can I just file patent applications based on my ideas… like Company X’s water-cooled power generators that sit in the ocean? You know, the ideas that our company will likely never build. But can I still get patented anyway?
U.S. patent laws consider an invention ready for patenting only when the invention includes both: 1) an idea, and 2) a reduction to practice.
An idea becomes an invention when reduced to practice. This means that someone has either built a working model or described how to build a working unit in sufficient enough detail to enable another person – who is reasonably skilled in the art, such as a fellow programmer not otherwise familiar with the invention but who is knowledgeable about the programming environment, language(s) and the like – to build a working unit.
The second method is termed a constructive reduction to practice. In many companies, inventions are typically reduced to practice when the inventor drafts detailed functional and technical specifications, or the inventor creates a working demo or prototype.
Applying this rule to your question, the issue becomes whether the invention is merely an idea (such as generators at the bottom of the ocean) or has been reduced to practice – meaning that there working models, demos, specification documents or presentation materials describing it. If these things exist, then the invention is ready to file as a patent application even if your company has not implemented the invention yet, may not implement the invention in the next year, or may never implement the invention at all.
Of course, since patents represent a significant investment of time and money, there is also the issue of whether protecting your invention, even when reduced to practice, makes financial sense. But that’s a topic for another day.