Updated November 27, 2020:

Patents: What Are They?

Understanding how to patent something is a part of knowing how to patent an idea. Patents are legal documents that describe, illustrate, and register your original invention, design, or discovery. There are four types of patents:

  • Utility Patents: These cover things like machines, processes, and systems.
  • Design Patents: These cover manufacturer designs and the way things look.
  • Plant Patents: These cover plant discoveries, developments, or reproductions.
  • Provisional Patents: These are preliminary patents that create a record of your idea while you work to develop it. They also allow you to claim "patent pending" status. You can convert this to a full utility, design, or plant patent within one year of filing.

Why Are Patents Important?

Patents give you exclusive rights to your designs and inventions. They prevent others from making or selling your invention or design. Patents also give you the right to sue anyone who tries to profit from your idea.

Steps to Patent Something

1. Document Your Invention or Design

Start by keeping a record of every step of your invention or design process. Write out ideas and explanations in a notebook. Add modifications or new ideas as they come up. Include diagrams and drawings, if possible. If you build a test product, document that too. Sign and date every entry, and consider having a witness sign, too.

2. Determine Whether Your Invention Is Original and Useful

To be eligible for a patent, your invention must be unique and useful. If your invention already exists or is obvious to most people, you might need to amend your invention.

3. Understand Your Invention or Design's Profit Potential

Applying for a patent can be expensive. Before you begin the process, understand how much you could make. Assess the costs and create a business plan to find out the profit potential.

4. Decide Whether to Hire a Patent Attorney

You can apply for a patent yourself, but hiring an attorney can make the process smoother. If you plan to file a complex patent application, consider hiring a lawyer to help.

5. Determine What Type of Patent You Need

Find out whether you need to file a utility, design, or plant patent. This affects the process you'll use and the fees you'll pay.

6. Complete a Patent Search

Do a patent search to find out if similar products or designs already exist.

7. File a Provisional Patent Application

The patent application process can take years. During that time, someone else could begin the patent process for a similar device or design. Protect your invention by filing a provisional patent application.

8. File a Patent Application With the USPTO

Write an abstract, background, summary, and description for your patent. Include the drawings, and make sure to reference them in the application's written components. When you're ready, file your patent application online, by mail, or by fax and pay the fees.

9. Work Closely With Your Patent Examiner

Your patent application case will be assigned to a patent examiner. Communicate with him or her and respond to any correspondence as soon as possible.

10. Amend or Appeal Your Application if Necessary

If your application isn't approved on the first try, make any changes, and resubmit it. You can file an official appeal with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board after two rejections.

Reasons to Consider Patenting Something

If you want to manufacture or sell a product or design, filing a patent could be an important part of your business plan.

  • You need to secure exclusive rights for a general or a specific invention

Patents can cover either general or specific designs or inventions. The type you pursue should match your business plan and help you profit as much as possible. If you plan to make several different products, remember you can file as many patents as needed. If you don't want your competition to know what you're doing, you might file a nonpublication request. This applies to provisional patents and can help keep things quiet until your application is approved.

  • You need to attract investors

If you need investor funding to bring your invention to market, you might need to get a patent first. Filing a patent shows investors that you've done work to secure profits. A patent also shows you're serious about your business.

Reasons to Consider Not Patenting Something

Even if you have a good idea, filing a patent application isn't always the right choice.

  • An idea isn't enough

If your invention is still just an idea, you shouldn't file a patent yet. Your invention must meet several requirements before you can get a patent. Read through the steps below to find out what to do before you file a patent.

  • You need to protect an artwork, a symbol, a logo, or intellectual property

Patents cover inventions and designs. They don't cover artwork, writings, logos, names, trade secrets, or intellectual property (IP). File for copyright, trademark, trade secret, or IP protection to secure appropriate rights.

  • Your invention isn't unique

You can't patent something that someone else already has the rights to. Follow the steps below to make sure your invention or design is unique before going through the patent process. You might, however, be able to patent an update or a change to an existing product or design.

  • Filing a patent can be expensive

In addition to the filing fee, you might have to pay other costs. You'll have to pay experts who help you develop your idea. If you file as a business, you don't have to pay employees who worked on the project. You'll have to pay lawyers who do legal research for you, though. If someone steals your invention or if you take someone else's, you'll have to pay legal fees.


There is no deadline for filing a full patent application. You should do it as early as possible, though. The USPTO can take up to three years to approve a patent application. If you've filed a provisional patent application, you must file a full patent within one year.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I Patent an Idea?

No, you can't patent an idea. Before patenting something, you must develop a complete concept. Your patent application needs enough details that a person could make your invention after reading it.

  • How Can I Protect My Ideas?

If your invention is still in the idea stage, be careful when you talk to others about it. Anyone could take your idea and turn it into an invention. If you talk to family members, friends, business partners, or competitors about it, ask them to sign a confidentiality agreement first. This will stop them from taking or using your idea without permission. You can also file a provisional patent to register your idea before filing a full patent.

  • Can I File a Patent Application Myself?

Yes, you can file a patent application on your own. This can save you money since you won't have to pay legal fees. If you file yourself, though, you won't get the legal help you might need. Compare the fees and the amount of research necessary. This will help you decide if you should file yourself or pay a lawyer to handle your application.

  • Do I Have to Draw My Invention?

No, you don't need drawing skills to patent something. Patent applications do need illustrations, though. You can pay a patent illustrator to draw your invention. The cost for this averages $75 to $100 per drawing.

  • What if My Patent Is Rejected?

You're not alone. Most patent examiners reject applications at least once. Many patents are rejected for not being new ideas or for being obvious to someone skilled in your field. You can usually edit or argue your application, though. You can also file a continuation application that includes new claims but keeps your original filing date priority.

  • How Long Does a Patent Last?

Utility and plant patents give you the rights to your invention for 20 years. Design patents last 14 years. No one can make the same product or use the same design during that period without your permission.

  • How Much Does It Cost to File a Patent Application?

The cost of a patent depends on whether you file as an individual, a small business, or a large business. Registering to use the USPTO's Electronic Filing System will help you save money and file more quickly. The USPTO levies standard patent fees:


Large Business Fee

Small Business Fee

Individual Fee

Utility Patent




Utility Patent Search




Utility Patent Examination




Design Patent




Design Patent Search




Design Patent Examination




Plant Patent




Plant Patent Search




Plant Patent Examination




Provisional Patent




If you hire an attorney to write your patent application, you'll also have to pay legal fees. Attorneys determine their own fees, which usually fall in this range:

Invention Type

Attorney Fee

Patent Search With Opinion Fee

Extremely Simple



Relatively Simple



Moderately Complex



Extremely Complex



Software or IP




If you need help patenting something, you can post your question or concern 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.