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What Is a Patent?
A patent is a formal declaration of property rights for a particular invention. Patents protect both physical inventions and intellectual property. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) states that a person who “invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent.” The standard U.S. patent extends for 20 years from the date that a patent application was filed.
The USPTO does not grant inventors permission to make a product. Rather, it grants those inventors the exclusive right to control whether others may manufacture that product. According to the USPTO: "What is granted is not the right to make, use, offer for sale, sell or import, but the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention."
3 Types of Patents
There are three types of patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office under present patent law:
- Utility patents: These are, in the words of the USPTO, "granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof."
- Design patents: As the name implies, design patents deal with aesthetics rather than utility. The USPTO defines design patents as covering "a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture."
- Plant patents: Believe it or not, you can patent plants in the United States. The patent process is granted by the USPTO "to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant."
How to Patent a Product or Idea
The patent application process is intended to be accessible to the average inventor yet demanding enough to separate legitimate inventions from lesser ideas that don't rise to the government's written standards. When you apply for a patent, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's patent examiners will review your invention and compare it to existing products and ideas in order to determine its patentability. The process takes time; on average you'll be waiting 18 to 24 months for a verdict on your patent application. Here are some key tips you'll want to follow as your work toward your patent filing date:
- Confirm that your idea is eligible to be patented. You won't want to go through the whole patenting process if someone else has already invented your product. The USPTO offers patent searching services on its website. Many law firms specializing in patent law can also help you in this patent search process, but a simple search might yield the information you're seeking.
- Keep records. You'll want to document the existence of your invention from the earliest possible point. It's possible that another inventor will be working on a similar product at the same time, and you'll want to show the chronology of your invention to prove you were not copying from anyone else. A dated journal, voice memos, sketches, photographs, and video can all memorialize your invention process. Digital files with timestamps can especially help you establish a claim to your invention.
- Make a prototype. The government will require a detailed description of the invention you're seeking to patent. There is no better way to accomplish this than to make an actual prototype, accompanied of course by a clear written description of how it works.
- Prepare to spend money. Patents are not cheap. The process usually starts at around $5,000 and can approach $20,000 for more complicated inventions. This is partly due to government fees, but it's also due to the cost of valuable help. The patent process is exhaustive, and many inventors will opt to employ patent agents or even a registered patent attorney to shepherd an idea through the USPTO. Certain law firms specialize in patent law, while full-service firms tend to keep at least one patent lawyer on staff or retainer.
- Consider filing a provisional patent application. If you're a small entity like a startup or a solo practitioner, the patent process may seem daunting and prohibitively expensive. To protect your invention quickly and for less money, you can file a provisional patent application. Good for one year, a provisional patent protects your rights while you amass the materials and financial resources needed to file a non-provisional patent application (an application for your actual patent). Inventions protected by a provisional patent are labeled as "patent pending." This signifies that while a product isn't yet a fully patented invention, its inventor's rights are still protected by patent infringement law.
- Be aware that you may also need an international patent. The United States Patent Office protects your rights as an inventor within the United States. Many countries honor one another's patents as a provision of trade agreements, but you may find that you'll need an international patent to fully protect yourself. The USPTO website has resources for first-time inventors who need help navigating international patent law. A dedicated patent firm can also offer you legal advice on utility and design patent applications in other countries.
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