When Do Patents Begin and How Long Do They Last?

Do patents last forever? The short answer is "no." Patents are the most temporary form of protection currently available for intellectual property.

Anyone can use an invention without special permission or licensing once the patent on that invention has expired and it has become part of the public domain

Many everyday inventions are not protected by patents anymore, like the makeup of televisions and simple computers. The basic forms or technologies of these inventions are in public domain. However, not all the developments on these original machines are included in that availability. As innovation continues, new ideas for improving the basics of computers are regularly patented. 

To determine the lifespan of a particular patent, there are two key points to consider:

  • Type of patent
  • Patent filing date

Know the Patent Type

The two types of patents provided by the federal government have unique lifespans. Here are the two types of patents and their usual durations:

Usually, when patents are discussed, the utility patent is what's in mind, as it protects machinery, composition, and process inventions. 

These terms begin with filing dates. Usually, you can count forward from the filing date to determine your patent's expiration date. This can become difficult when patents have multiple filing dates. 

Know Your Filing Date

The United States Patent and Trademark Office keeps a record of all patent filing dates in a public database. But it is also vital that the patent owner keeps track of his or her filing date.

If you are wondering how much longer your invention will be covered under a patent protection, start with the filing date. This gets complicated when an invention has a few different filing dates, which happens when a provisional patent is filed before the actual patent. 

Provisional Patent 

When an inventor is in a hurry to protect his or her intellectual property, he or she can apply for a provisional patent. This provides a more informal and temporary protection than a regular patent. However, it's also quicker and easier to obtain. Ideally, an inventor procures a provisional patent with the intent of obtaining a true patent in the very near future. 

Provisional patents only last for one year from the application date. They allow an inventor a bit more time to develop and plan his or her idea without worry of losing it to another. 

If an individual obtains a provisional patent, the individual should know that the lifespan of his or her protection is actually the date when the provisional patent was filed, not the regular patent. 

A utility patent obtained on September 1, 2013, will expire on September 1, 2023. However, if the inventor applied for a provisional patent for the same invention on January 4, 2013, the patent coverage will expire on January 4, 2023. This can be viewed as losing a year off your patent's lifespan. However, the provisional patent provides necessary coverage, so there isn't much lost in the long run. 

It's easy to misjudge the term of your patent if you do not consider the provisional patent filing date or if you're starting with the date of patent approval, which is not when the term starts.

Priority Date

The date when you first filed for your patent, whether provisional or actual, is known as the priority date. Inventors have some options for getting priority for their applications for patents. But they will lose time off the life of the actual patent term

Legal rights will not be allowed to be enforced for the entire term, either. A patent cannot be enforced before the United States Patent and Trademark Office approves the patent, allowing for claims.

Don't let older patent rules confuse you. A patent filed before June 8, 1995, or on that exact day, only had a 17-year duration. After that date, the United States matched other countries around the world with the 20-year term.

Keep in mind that patent applications can take anywhere from one to three years for processing. Therefore, they are actually only enforceable for a portion of the 20-year term.

If you need help with a patent, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Stripe, and Twilio.