How to Get a U.S. Patent: Everything You Need to Know

A U.S. patent is a type of license or authority given by the government that gives an inventor exclusive rights to manufacture, sell, or use his or her invention. Inventors who don't know how to get a U.S. patent have two filing options for most inventions. A provisional patent application holds the original filing date and expires after one year, giving inventors a chance to file a utility patent. This type of patent, also known as a non-provisional patent, is granted to inventors for a product, process, or machine. The U.S. government awards patents to individuals, corporations, and other groups.

How to Assess Your Patent for Eligibility

When it comes to filing for a patent, applicants should first determine if their idea is eligible for a patent. It's important to note that only fresh or improved versions of processes, machines, or manufactured goods are considered for a patent. A fresh concept is one that has never been up for a patent. An improved version is one that takes an existing idea and makes changes to present a new, useful product or process. Abstract ideas, inventions without utility, and naturally occurring elements are not considered patentable.

After figuring out whether an invention is patent-eligible, the next step is to decide the patent category. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has three types of patents:

  • Design Patent: This type of patent is for new processes or items with no discernible function or use. Common to the automotive industry, these patents prevent other parties from copying the look of a product. A design patent lasts 14 years. It typically gives the inventor time to apply the design to something useful.
  • Utility Patent: Utility patents are the most common type of patents. They apply to inventions that are new, original, and provide a beneficial purpose for businesses or other consumers. These patents are good for 20 years.
  • Plant Patent: Plant patents are an important type of patent in the agricultural industry. This type of patent is given to inventors who develop their own hybrid or strain of plant through complex scientific engineering. Plants that are chemical- or disease-resistant may also qualify as utility patents. Plant patents are good for 20 years.

Inventors who have a product or idea that doesn't fall under one of these categories may find they cannot receive or even apply for a patent.

After determining what type of patent an idea or process falls under, the final step is to find out if the idea is or isn't patented already. There are three ways to see if your idea is already patented:

  • Go to the USPTO patent database. Here you can use keyword and description searches to try to find a patent that's similar to yours.
  • Visit a patent depository library. This allows you to access databases and records for free. The librarians at these facilities are highly skilled in researching patents, should you need a hand in the process.
  • Check scientific journals and trade journals that discuss patents on a topic that's similar to your idea.

Remember that what you're searching for is a prior invention that's similar to yours. If yours differs in a significant fashion, you probably warrant a patent.

Preparation for Filing a Patent Application

You've finally determined that your idea or invention is patent-eligible. Therefore, the next step is to prepare for the patent application. In most instances, it's worthwhile to enlist the help of a professional who is versed in patent application preparation. There are four ways to do this:

  • Hire a Patent Lawyer. Patent lawyers must have a background or an undergraduate degree in a science or engineering field to pass the patent bar exam. As a result, they know not only patent law but whether your invention is permissible for a patent application.
  • Get Help from the USPTO. The USPTO's Pro Se Assistance Program is available to inventors who need help filing a patent application. With this program, you can get all the necessary forms and documents to file for a patent. The only downside is that it's by appointment and available only at the USPTO's office in Alexandria, Virginia.
  • Visit a Law School Clinic. Many law schools have a patent law clinic. Here you can ask questions about patent law from aspiring, passionate students. This is an ideal choice for those who can't afford a patent lawyer but require the legal advice necessary to get their application in order. A USPTO-approved law professor presides over any advice given at these clinics.
  • Find Free Patent Filing Assistance in Your Area. Some states have pro-bono programs to assist low-income inventors in patent application preparation.

These are the only sure ways to receive patent application assistance. Any other outlets are usually scams. Many online companies offer patent application assistance provided you pay the entire fee up front. In many instances, they'll either take the fee and provide no work, or they'll steal your idea altogether. If you decide to pursue assistance through an online company, always check their reputation, get everything in writing, and have an attorney review any contracts or legal documents.

Filing Your Patent Application

After you've gathered the necessary documentation for the patent application, the easiest way to submit the application is by filing electronically. The USPTO's website makes this process quick and simple. Moreover, it ensures your application submission is secure and successful. Only utility and design patents are eligible for online submission.

If you don't feel comfortable applying electronically or do not have the means to do so, you can apply by mail. Utility, design, and plant patents are all eligible for application through the mail. You can find the forms online, and most are straightforward. If you have any questions, make sure to contact the USPTO at 1-800-786-9199 and select option 2.

Once you submit the application, it may take weeks or a few months to hear whether you've gained approval or denial, so remain patient.

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