My dad's site, www.bobharter.com, is a great resource for anybody interested in protecting their ideas or learning about patents.
Be sure to check out the "Animated Patent Search Tutorial":
Another awesome freebie is the downloadable provisional patent application in PDF format:
You can submit the application directly to the United States Patent & Trademark Office to make your idea "Patent Pending." The free PDF also contains a sample application that's already been filled out for an imaginary invention.
If you end up doing a lot of free patent searches via the www.uspto.gov website, you'll probably get tired of the slow performance you'll encounter. That's where FasterPatents comes to the rescue. FasterPatents is an application that speeds up searches by downloading the images for several patents at a time before you actually need to look at them. That way they pop up instantly as you progress through your search results.
You can visit the site at www.fasterpatents.com.
If you're interested in a 30-day free trial, email me and I'll send you a trial code. The program costs $300 if you'd like to purchase it.