Updated November 10, 2020:

How to patent a service idea--you need to learn about utility patents. Intellectual property laws in the United States allow for three patent types: design patents, plant patents (horticultural), and utility patents. If you want to patent a service idea, you would need to apply for a utility patent, which covers original inventions, as well as new processes.

Other Ways of Protecting Your Business Idea

If you find that your service idea is not eligible for a patent, you may still be able to protect your intellectual property using either a trademark or a copyright.

Copyrights cover a wide range of artistic creations, including paintings, music, written works, or videos. The U.S. Copyright Office will provide you a copyright for your original work in exchange for a small fee. You should be aware, however, that a copyright does not entirely protect concepts, ideas, methods, or systems.

A trademark, on the other hand, protects the colors, names, symbols, sounds, or words associated with the logo or aesthetic of an individual business, celebrity, or entity. Unlike patents, trademarks are renewable, and eligibility is determined based on recent commercial use. Trademark infringement can result in costly litigation and unclaimed names can be registered online for free.

The Two Types of Patents

There are two types of patents in U.S. intellectual property law. Utility patents protect new inventions or processes, while design patents are assigned to new designs of pre-existing inventions.

Types of Utility Patents

The type of utility patent you need depends on the nature of your invention. If your utility patent application is approved, your invention will be protected for a period of 20 years.

A process patent is used to protect a method of completing a task or solving a problem. Generally, when you apply for a process patent, you have not created a physical product, but have created a new solution for an existing problem. A process patent is usually granted in a business field.

For instance, you could have improved an old business model so it functions better. It's important to remember that to receive your patent, your idea must be novel. This means that no other person has already come up with your idea. Your invention should also be non-obvious, which means that an expert in the field of your invention could not have imagined your idea.

Why Are Business Method Patents Important?

Business methods are a form of "intellectual property" and are protected under U.S. patent law. Business method patents are valid for 17 years from the patent registration date. After your business method patent has been registered, you will have the ability to prevent others from using your method without your express permission. The USPTO maintains strict classifications for what types of business methods are and are not eligible for a patent. Financial data processing methods, for example, are usually eligible for a patent. Some of the more common business method classifications include fields such as:

  • Agriculture
  • Education
  • Gaming

Machine-or-Transformation Test

The number of patent applications for service ideas has risen exponentially in recent years, coinciding with the information technology boom. Between 1997 and 2007, applications for business methods increased from 1,000 to 11,000. As a result, the USPTO Interim Guidelines for Examination of Patent Applications for Patent Subject Matter Eligibility was updated to outline the rules for obtaining business method patents, and also includes guidelines for patenting computer software. Under a ruling made in 2008, it's likely a large portion of the business method patents granted prior to this year would now be considered ineligible for a patent.

Verify that Your Idea Hasn't Been Patented Already

Prior to submitting your service idea patent application, you should visit the Patent and Trademarks Office website to conduct a patent keyword search. This search will help you determine if your service idea has already been registered by another person.

When performing your search, you should be sure to use keywords that describe the purpose of your invention instead of its name. Searching the name of your invention will likely return a wide array of patents, many that are completely unrelated to your idea. On the other hand, searching based on what your invention does will help you to find similar patents.

Be certain to thoroughly review your search results so you can find every patent related to your invention. Look at both descriptions and classifications, and if they are available, examine drawings.

To ensure you can patent your invention, you need to perform as comprehensive a search as possible. Search using multiple keywords, and also search for a variety of classifications. Performing multiple searches will help you to find similar inventions that may prevent you from obtaining your patent.

Consider Hiring a Patent Attorney or Agent

Attorneys that specialize in patent law have received comprehensive training in this field. Before a patent attorney can offer their services, they must pass a patent exam. This is in addition to the standard bar exam required of all attorneys. Patent agents are also required to pass a patent exam before they can help clients with their applications. The patent registration process can be very difficult, requiring an investment of both your time and money. Hiring a patent agent or a patent attorney is one of the best ways to make sure you successfully complete the application process so that your patent will be issued. Having your patent application prepared by a professional will limit the risk that important information will be omitted and your application will be rejected.

To complete an online application, visit the USPTO.gov website. Applicants should submit:

  • Payment (a list of current fees can be obtained at the USPTO.gov website)
  • A datasheet
  • Claims, meaning attributes of your business method that you want to protect.
  • A description of the invention
  • Drawings

Protected or Patented?

Contrary to popular opinion, there is no legal way to you can protect an idea. Although an idea is the first step of the invention, you must ensure your idea is a physical reality before any intellectual property protections are available to you. An idea by itself cannot be legally protected, but you can protect an invention. An invention, as long as it is novel and non-obvious, can be patented. A patent is one of the strongest forms of intellectual property protection.

Many people are surprised to learn they may actually have invented something that can be patented. Your invention does not necessarily have to be a physical product. For example, new plant species and business processes are both inventions that can be patented. While you do need some way of embodying your idea, this can be as simple as describing your invention on a piece of paper.

Great ideas are common, but few people have the ability to profit from their idea. What separates dreamers from money-making inventors is the ability to fully define an idea to the point where it can be legally protected.

When researching how to patent a service idea, remember that not every form of intellectual protection lasts forever. Trademarks and copyrights, for example, can be renewed over and over again, meaning your IP protections will never run out. Patents, on the other hand, are only valid for a limited period of time, meaning your rights to your invention will eventually expire. Before you apply for your utility patent, you should determine the value of your invention in both the short and long-term. If your invention isn't likely to be a money-maker, then you may not want to spend the time or money necessary to obtain a patent.

Do You Have a New Invention Idea?

The America Invents Act (AIA) outlines specific rules for who has ownership right of an invention. Under the AIA, patents are granted on a first to file basis, meaning the first person to submit a patent application will be the person who is provided IP rights.

Although there are some exceptions to this first filing rule, these exceptions have not been decided in court. Also, because these exceptions are narrow, they won't affect most patents. Now that first filers are given priority for patents, inventors feel pressured to file a patent application as soon as they feel it is practical to do so. You should ensure you have filed your patent application before publicly disclosing any part of your invention.

If you need help patenting a service idea, 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.