A patent is the most comprehensive protection mechanism you can gain. But there are alternatives.
However, a patent is not necessarily the best solution to protect your invention. There are alternatives to patent protection. Below, we briefly introduce you to other types of protection and compare them to a general patents.
Utility models can be registered within a few weeks without an extensive examination process. Thus, it can quickly be used as a right of prohibition while patent application is usually pending for several years. Besides, a German utility model has a grace period of six months. That means your invention can be published by yourself half a year before filing the utility model application without impairing your right for protection.
The maximum term of protection is 10 years and only products, apparatus and substances, but no methods can be protected. The costs of preparing a utility model application are similar to the costs of preparing a patent application.
A design is not meant to protect the technical functionality of an invention. It serves to protect a visual appearance. Thus, it is not a direct alternative to a patent and offers limited protection against imitation.
However, a design can be an interesting alternative. The legal dispute between Apple and Samsung which lead to a sales ban of Samsung tablets in Germany was based on a design infringement case.
The easiest and most cost-efficient way to protect an invention is the non-disclosure of the functional principle. If third parties cannot reproduce your invention (e.g. a production method), your knowledge is basically protected over an unlimited period of time. When applying for a patent, other parties can notice your invention 18 months after the application filing date and start using it as soon as the property right expires.
Therefore, if your invention is not visible in your products, secrecy can be a very interesting mechanism to protect your knowledge in a cost-efficient way. However, the signaling function is omitted in this case.