How Long Do Patents Last?

How long do patents last? That depends on the type of patent.

  • A design patent, which protects how something looks, typically lasts 14 years.

  • A utility patent, which protects the function of an invention, typically lasts 20 years.

  • A plant patent, which is fairly uncommon outside of the agricultural industry, protects unique plant strains created through scientific engineering. A plant patent typically lasts 20 years.

What Are Patents?

Patents are legal protections for your intellectual property. After applying for and receiving a patent, no other person or business can make your product or use your idea without your permission. Essentially, a patent lets you claim an idea or invention and gives you the right to control how it is used. Patents must be issued by a government authority and are not always issued, even if the idea seems novel and worthwhile.

If you are unsuccessful in obtaining one type of patent, you may be able to obtain a different type, depending on the nature of the invention in question.

Different Factors Affect How Long Patents Last

There are exceptions to the above-mentioned lengths of patent validity. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is ultimately responsible for determining how long a patent is good for. Many issues can impact how long a patent lasts.

For instance, if you file for a second patent related to your first one, you may have to file an agreement with the USPTO called a "terminal disclaimer" that puts limits on the new patent. This means that the patent will expire at the same time as the original, not in an additional 14 years. You may be able to extend the length of time covered by your patent by receiving a duration adjustment on the first patent.

Additionally, if for some reason the inventor of a patented item were unable to commercially market the patent because it was waiting for regulatory approval, the length of time covered under the patent may be extended under provision 35 U.S.C. 156. However, this mostly applies for patents for:

  • Human pharmaceuticals

  • Food additives

  • Animal drugs

  • Medical devices or equipment

  • Color additives

  • Products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration

  • Products regulated by other government organizations

For U.S. Patents Filed Before June 17, 1995

If you filed your patent before June 17, 1995, your patent will last from 17 years from when the patent was issued, as this was the length of time that patents used to be valid for. For most individuals and businesses impacted by older patents, the time frame has already expired. However, if your patent still falls into this category, make sure to keep paying maintenance fees to keep your patent active.

For U.S. Patents Filed After June 17, 1995

If you filed your patent after June 17, 1995, or if you plan to file one in the future, your patent will likely last 20 years from the date that you filed for it. It's important to remember that processing a patent application takes time. In some cases, the processing can take a year or longer. This means that you'll really only receive somewhere between 17 and 19 years of patent protection from your patent, once you deduct the processing time.

Understanding Patent Extensions

There are some situations where a patent can be extended for five additional years. This is a rare situation, however. The situations under which you may apply for an extension include:

  • Delays because of interference proceedings.

  • An appellate review of your patent's validity.

  • Failure for the USPTO to issue a patent within three years of processing.

Additional Considerations for Patents

Make sure that you pay any applicable maintenance fees in a timely manner to keep up with your patent protection. For a micro entity, the fees are $400 at the 3.5-year mark, $900 at the 7.5-year mark, and $1,850 at the 11.5-year mark. The amount that you are required to pay may be higher depending on the type of business you operate.

If you need help with understanding your patent rights or the length of time that a patent is valid for, 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.