How Long Does a Utility Patent Last?

Utility patents filed on or after June 8, 1995, last for 20 years from the application filing date.

Before this date, patent protections in the United States lasted for 17 years from when the USPTO first gave the patent. The law changed to obey Article 33 of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement from the Uruguay Round Agreements of the General Agreement on Tariffs. Because of this article, the U.S. had to set up a patent protection term that ends no sooner than 20 years from the first application date.

The 20-year patent term is a general one. For instance, a patent application that refers to an earlier filed patent application follows different rules. In this case, the patent term ends 20 years from the earliest application's filing date.

Also, the person who holds the patent must keep it going by paying maintenance fees during the 20-year patent term. The patent ends if these fees aren't paid on time.

Why is it Important to Understand How Long a Utility Patent Lasts?

You need to make sure the utility patent lasts long enough for you to raise money or work on your invention, otherwise you might not reach your goal.

In the U.S., there are different types of patents, and each one offers a different term length. For example, a design patent lasts for up to 15 years from the patent grant. Most patents in the U.S. are utility patents, though, and if you're an inventor, chances are you should file a utility patent application.

Figuring out your specific patent term isn't easy if you have more than one filing date.

Provisional Patent Application

The provisional patent application is a placeholder that gives your invention the "Patent Pending" status. You can file the provisional patent application at any time, but keep in mind that this application starts the clock on your official patent application paperwork.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) never reviews provisional patent applications because the provisional form isn't meant to award a patent. When you file for this application, you need to file the official non-provisional patent application within one year or else it expires, and you'll never get a patent for that invention. The provisional application is useful because it gives you a full year to review the invention, prepare your non-provisional patent application, and raise the money for your patent fees.

Since patent terms last for 20 years from the earliest filing date, the provisional patent application starts the clock. If you file your non-provisional patent application 12 months after the provisional and the USPTO grants you a patent, the patent will last 19 years because the provisional year already passed.

Non-Provisional Patent Application

To enjoy full patent protection for the entire 20-year period, some inventors skip the provisional patent application and file the official non-provisional application right away.

If you do this, you won't waste money filing the provisional application. However, you'll need to be more guarded with your invention. If you think that someone might steal your intellectual property before you can file the non-provisional application, a provisional application is the smartest move.

The trouble with a provisional application is that it expires 12 months from the date you filed it, and you may feel rushed to file the non-provisional application on time. If you go this route, you'll need to save enough money to apply for the actual patent within one year. The provisional patent application essentially forces your hand, so you'll need to be motivated.

There are also different sets of rules for continuing applications, international patent applications, and foreign priority. These may not apply to your patent, but it's important to research the entire patent process to figure out which category your invention will fall under. If you're not sure of something, a patent lawyer can help you.

Common Mistakes

It's important to remember that a utility patent's 20-year term starts from the original file date, not from when the patent is granted. What's more, patent applications can take up to three years to process. In this case, you can apply for an extension so the patent will last for 17 years from the date of issue.

Filing a provisional patent application too early is another common mistake. While it's important to protect your intellectual property as soon as possible, filing for a "Patent Pending" status too early could make it hard for you to complete your non-provisional patent application on time.

While you can file a provisional patent application yourself, that could be a mistake. Unless you have the time and the desire to study all the rules and have the writing skills to pull it off, your best choice is to hire a patent attorney. The attorney will also help you fill out the non-provisional patent application, which is a more complex form.

Failing to maintain a patent is another common mistake. Once your utility patent is issued, you will need to pay maintenance fees at year four, year eight, and year 12 from the issue date. If you don't pay these fees, the patent ends and so does the protection of your intellectual property.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much do patent maintenance fees cost?

For utility patents, maintenance fees cost $400 the fourth year, $900 on the eighth, and $1,850 on the twelfth. When you add up the other fees related to the filing process, you could be looking at a total cost of $12,000 or more. Large companies and corporations can easily spend $20,000 or more on each patent.

  • Are there any special circumstances that can affect the utility patent term?

A terminal disclaimer applies if you file a patent that's similar to one you already have on file. When this happens, you may have to file a terminal disclaimer agreement that puts limits on your second patent.

You can also extend some patents in special cases. Most of the time, this only applies if you're trying to patent medications, color additives, food, or other products regulated by a government agency such as the Food and Drug Administration.

  • How long does it take to get a patent?

On average, it takes 32 months, or just under three years to get a patent. Your exact case depends on how much time the USPTO spends looking at the patent application.

  • What if my patent has been delayed at the USPTO?

Most patents issued over the past decade include an added term adjustment (PTA) due to examination delays. The adjustment is located on the face of the patent and includes the number of days added to the patent term. Unless the USPTO includes a patent term adjustment on your patent, the patent length remains the same.

  • Can I speed up the utility patent process?

In general, no. However, the USPTO offers something called a prioritized examination, also known as Track One, to a small number of applicants each year. To be considered for Track One, you must pay a large fee. If accepted, you will receive your final acceptance or rejection within 12 months.

  • How long do international patents last?

Most inventors in the U.S. only seek patent protection within the United States, but you can apply for an international patent if you want to produce and sell your product around the world. International patents vary from six to 20 years depending on the country. Countries that are part of the World Trade Organization often have a patent term length of 20 years.

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