Independent inventors, there is a logical progression to protecting your invention.
I would recommend that you do a patent search first before going much further. It is possible that your idea has been conceived before and that you will need to get on to your next idea. Actually, a good progression of steps is:
1. Do a rudimentary patent search of prior patents at to see if the idea has been patented at the U.S. Patent Office website www.uspto.gov. Then look for similar products to yours on Google www.google.com keeping in mind that you are probably a novice at searching. You will miss things and are not qualified to determine whether your idea is protectable under the U.S. Patent System. My experience is that new inventors actually think their idea is not patentable when some aspects of potential market value are... a bad mistake to make indeed!
The U. S. Patent Laws protect new, useful, and non-obvious ideas. You can get a lot of information about patents from the government at their web site above.
2. Consider filing a patent application if 1 above looks good. I'd hire a patent attorney or agent to do a thorough search, then based on their opinion of patentability determine if you should file a patent application.
Keep in mind that there may be time limits on filing a patent application if you have been marketing products based on it.
Your patent rights in the U.S. are void if you do not at least file a provisional application within one year of the date of first sale, offer for sale, public use, or publication. If you file a provisional application, you must follow-up by filing a utility patent application within the one year period to retain its filing date. To preserve your foreign patent rights, you need to get your patent on file before any sale, offer for sale, public use, or publication of your invention or products based thereon.
Individual inventors or small technology companies may apply for their own utility patent protection. The USPTO provides application instructions and cost estimates. The application must conform to rigid USPTO requirements. Good applications for IP protection are typically complex and can take some time - 18 to 24 months is not uncommon, especially for patent applications - so it might be worth the cost of obtaining a professional's services for peace of mind.
There are major pitfalls to be avoided when considering obtaining IP protection for a product or idea. The first rule is to always know who you are dealing with when seeking professional advice and expertise.