Good patents, in the United States, protect for 20 years starting from the date an inventor applies for any invented products, processes, or designs that meet specific requirements of utility, non-obviousness, and novelty.

When a country grants an inventor a patent, he or she has exclusive rights. Others are prohibited from selling, making, or using the invention, unless permitted by the patent owner. Such rights last for the duration of the protection period. Good patents do not get issued to a company — only to an individual inventor. In many cases, employees may assign a patented product or process to their employer.

When Can You File for a Patent?

In the U.S., no later than one year following the public or published disclosure describing the invention or whenever it is first made available for purchase or commercial use, a patent application needs to get filed with the Patent & Trademark Office. Disclosing the invention's description under a confidentiality agreement that you and another party have signed does not qualify as a public disclosure. With the one-year rule in place, inventors can test market their invention before deciding to invest in filing for the patent.

On the contrary, for most countries, getting protection under the patent law is not available for inventions that have had a public disclosure before an inventor applies. Further, whereas being the first to invent prevails in the United States, being the first to submit a patent wins in many other countries.

What You Should Know About Foreign Filing

When a person files for a patent in the U.S., under international treaties, it is also filing for foreign protection, starting the date of the domestic application. Therefore, to retain your ability to get foreign rights, it is safer to register with the Patent & Trademark Office first before disclosing publicly. However, you still have to file for an international patent within a year of your United States filing.

Foreign patent filings get made under one of the following two international treaties:

Although you limit required upfront filing fees and preserve your rights by filing under the above provisions, you are still required to pay the filing fees for each country where you want to get the patent.

The Limitations of Filing a Patent Application in the U.S.

Only after 18 months have passed following the filing of your patent application is it made available or published by the United States Patent & Trademark Office. To get a patent, it takes 18 to 24 months. That means your competitors could be in the process of getting a patent and you would not know while you are waiting. The better the inventor does writing out the description, the higher the chances of getting protection closer to the 18-month mark.

How Much Does It Cost?

In the United States, you should plan on spending anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 to get a patent. Your budget should also account for maintenance and foreign filing fees, which are additional. It can cost up to $330,000 in some industrial nations for a small company to get and maintain a patent. 

Depending on the funds you have available, it might be best to look into the "provisional patent" process. With this type, you can file the description of your invention with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office — getting an earlier file date — and still have 12 months to complete and submit the full application. The benefit of filing a provisional application is the laxness of requirements for claims and other formalities you would have with the patent application in its entirety.

Should You Get Help With the Application?

In addition to being expensive, to file for a patent can be complicated. It would serve you well to seek a patent lawyer with specialization in obtaining protected rights in the relevant technical field. Any experienced attorney will have an understanding of the process, but a lawyer that deals explicitly in the area of knowledge your invention covers is valuable, especially when it comes to writing claims that would anticipate technological developments.

If you need help with good patents, 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, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.