Updated September 7, 2021:

Learning how to patent an improvement on an existing product is a vital step toward marketability and premiums (see patent cost). If you own a patent, you have possession of a product or design and others cannot make, sell, or use it. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) grants patents for improvements made to existing products or innovations similar to already-patented products.

Improvement Patent

An improvement patent is made with products already in existence when you pursue patentable innovations. Improvement patents can enhance a current product, bring in new technology, or define a new use of a product. Determine if the improvement patent is worthwhile before beginning the process.

Most new patents granted are improvement patents fall into one of these categories:

  • Addition invention. This type of invention that adds something to an already-established invention.
  • Substitution invention. This involves changing an aspect of the already-existing invention.
  • Incorporating new technologies into old products. Sometimes technology improves the process of making a product, so adding this facet would be worthwhile.
  • New use for an existing invention. One recent example of this was a patent issued for using an ointment on cow udders called Bag Balm to treat human baldness.

Can you patent an improvement to an existing product? Improvement Patents

There are several keys to demonstrate that your idea adds something new.

  • Search for the patent. Before you start the patent application, complete a two-part search. Look at previous patents to see if your idea is already covered. Secondly, review related patents to see if your improvement is worth a patent.
  • File a temporary patent. The entire provisional patent process takes time, but once complete, it's valid for 12 months. Mention if you're using a patent attorney. This is voluntary, but the USPTO encourages you to do so.
  • Prepare the application. There are four sections to the application. The first two cover the description and summary. The third, called prior art, covers similar patents and how they apply to your application. The final section, also known as claims, includes specifications and drawings.
  • Revisions to the application. Most times your original patent application is not approved, typically because one or more of your claims already have patents already on them. You must prove that your idea is new. If you're able to do so, you will receive approval for patent application.

Provisional Patent Application

The purpose of a patent application is to allow an inventor to propose an idea, test its innovations, or modify a product before committing to the costly and time-consuming process of filing a formal application.

The provisional patent application process is valid for 12 months from the date of the file. The provisional application must have the names of the inventor(s). Some other requirements include the title of the invention and attorney or the patent agent name. See Provisional Patent Cost.

Patentability Standard for Improvement Patents

In order to apply for an improvement patent, you must prove that the invention is:

  • New. Nobody else can claim to advertise, sell, or patent anything similar.
  • Useful. The improvement must add a new function or extends the existing function of the invention.
  • Not obvious. Your invention cannot be an obvious take off an invention or have features used in similar instances (see non-obvious patent example).

Most people believe that they once they get an improvement patent, they can build, use, or sell the invention without the fear of anyone coming after them for patent infringement. That isn't the case.

For instance, if your invention enhances an item, you might need to include the item in the patent. If the original invention doesn't have an expired patent, you might be guilty of infringement. So be careful when filling out the application.

Patenting Improvements

Most inventions are improvements on devices or solutions. So keep in mind that inventors oftentimes improve upon the work done by others. If you opt to take on improvement patents, know that you already have the market for a current product. This lets you avoid the difficulties of branching into the commercial industry. Establishing a market isn't easy, so many times inventors stay with improvements.

However, be honest with yourself when it comes to your patent. Is your invention better than other solutions available? Would others want to buy yours? Remember that your patent is an improvement and worth it so others must pay a premium for it. The premium allows reimbursement for your expenses.

In an ideal situation, your invention will not only bring in a premium but encourage others to view your invention as a much better idea than what they currently use. Also, consider the market. If your invention has little marketability, this means fewer resources. You might not get the exposure and money for an invention like that. You're spending quite a bit of money on your patented invention, and if you're wrong about the market, you cannot get that money back.

If you need help learning how to patent an improvement on an existing product, 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.