Patents provide inventors protection for the products and processes that they create. Individuals, small-business owners, and seasoned inventors all benefit from these protections, but there's a lot to consider before deciding whether to file a patent application. Patents are only beneficial in certain circumstances, for example, and the filer must carefully consider whether a patent is more important than keeping an invention confidential. Get a handle on what patents are, what you can and must include in your application, and the value of a patent attorney to help you move forward with protecting your invention.

What Are Patents?

A patent is issued by the U.S. Patent Office and provides the patent holder protections that prohibit others from making, using, or selling the invention outlined in the document. A license agreement, on the other hand, give third parties permission to reproduce, use, and sell your invention without infringing on your rights or transferring ownership.

The patent application process must be approached with great care. Having a patent denied and filing a new application is costly and time consuming, and because patent applications are public, information about your new invention could be disclosed to the public.

Moreover, a patent isn't a guarantee of success. Think carefully about how you'll utilize the patent and why you need one before applying. For example, you might use a patent to entice investors or to obtain licensing to secure royalties for an invention that others will use.

Why File a Patent?

Essentially, a patent grants the inventor a temporary monopoly over the invention. The patent holder may use this period, typically 20 years, to develop the invention without worrying about someone stealing the idea and taking it to market before the inventor perfects their product or process.

A patent can also be a powerful negotiating tool for businesses. Indeed, an individual or enterprise may file a patent for the purpose of selling a product or process rather than developing it themselves.

Trademarks, copyrights, industrial designs, and integrated circuit topographies all grant inventors certain rights, but they're all different from the protections afforded through a patent. An inventor needs to take out a patent to safeguard a new invention, a product or process, or a new, practical addition to an existing invention.

Before you file a patent application, be aware that the information in the document will be available to the public. Some companies forgo patent applications in order to keep their trade secrets private. For example, Coca-Cola has never patented its drink recipe. You may want to keep your invention secret until you're ready to launch it.

What Can Be Included in Patent Applications?

The U.S. Patent Office grants patents exclusively for products and processes, not just ideas. The patent application must include enough concrete information to distinguish a practical invention from a vague concept.

However, you do not need a prototype or working model of the invention before you patent it. You simply must be able to describe the invention's function and construction in clear enough detail that someone else with the necessary practical knowledge could explain and replicate the invention.

The U.S. Patent Office outlines some basic criteria for patents:

  • Novelty: The invention must be new and not infringe on a patent for another invention or any concept that belongs to the body of public knowledge (“prior art”).
  • Utility: The invention must have a clear function.
  • Inventiveness: The invention must be new or improve an existing technology.

You can patent an invention that is a physical item, a formula for a chemical product, a machine, a process for making something, or an improvement to one of these things.

Most patents that people file aren't for inventions made from scratch. Rather, they're usually for novel improvements to existing products and processes. You may also sign a license agreement with the patentee of an invention, further develop a patented item, and secure a new patent for your modifications.

The Role of a Patent Attorney or Patent Agent

A patent attorney plays a key role in verifying that your invention doesn't infringe on anyone else's property, negotiating license agreements and royalties, and confirming that your application includes all necessary information.

If you need more help with 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, Stripe, and Twilio.