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Here is my understanding (IANAL/YMMV): if the patent in question has expired (generally after 20 years), you are free (as in liberty and as in beer) to use the idea. Otherwise, be prepared for an onslaught of threatening letters and demands for licensing if your product is successful.
If you do decide to patent your idea, be aware that most countries are "first to file" meaning that it doesn't matter who invented something first, it's the first to get an application to the Patent Office who ultimately gets the patent. The USA has "first to invent", but that changes to "first to file" on March 16, 2013. It's conceivable that it gets overturned some year by the USA Supreme Court.
If you're not going to patent, be sure to publish your idea so becomes "prior art" and nobody can then patent the same idea and sue you. There is a short "grace period" after you publish when you can still apply for a patent.
Again, IANAL and this is just my own understanding from reading various sources, especially groklaw.net. For real legal advice, consult a lawyer.
Hi John, Thank you for your useful words.
The circuits I'm looking at utlilising in my design were patented at some point in the 1800's so there's a good chance that I'll be able to use them now! The old KISS adage of Keep It Simple Stupid applies to my design...
I had sutmbled across the term Prior Art earlier today, thank you for the explanation. This has helped me and I have a clearer idea of how to conduct my research.
I have an Idea for an tool, to be sold into the Energy industry, and other industries.
I have looked thourgh patents (using googles patent search), and can't find any tool similar, which is good news for me.
When designing a circuit, it isn't unusual to utilise existing historic concepts and existing circuit designs to form parts of your overall design - what if one of those concepts / circuit designs has already been patented before? Do you need to pay royalties for every unit sold, etc..? Without giving too much away, the circuit in questio to form part of my design is a bit similar to a Wheatstone Bridge.