Updated November 17, 2020:

What Is an Improvement Patent?

Improvement patents add to the technology of a basic or existing patent in the same industry. The United States Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO, often grants patents for improvements to products or for inventions that are similar to items that people have already patented. You just need to demonstrate that your idea adds something that's genuinely new to your industry, which can be accomplished even if it doesn't have practical real-world applications. 

However, you should learn about existing patents, also called prior art, before you spend money on patent applications, prototypes, models, and manufacturing. The USPTO compares your idea with previous publications to judge its novelty and non-obviousness. Previous materials can be patents, rejected patent applications, expired patents, magazine articles, and more. A large percentage of the patents issued by the USPTO are improvement patents.

Improvement Patent Rules

An improvement patent won't give an inventor the right to make and sell their improvement. To do that, he or she should get permission from the original patent owner unless the patent has expired. The original patent holder will also need a license from the inventor of the improvement to sell or make the improved version. Patent laws are very complicated, so you shouldn't apply for a patent without speaking with an experienced patent lawyer.

How To Get an Improvement Patent

You should file a provisional patent including a description and drawings to protect your idea for 12 months. The patent process is complicated and time-consuming, so temporary protection is a good idea. The application should include the name of the person or business that owns the rights to the idea and the name of any patent agent or attorney involved.

Before you prepare a complete patent application, you should search for previous patents that are similar or identical to your idea. Then, carefully review any patents you find to make sure your idea is novel. Patent applications should have four sections:

  • A description
  • A summary of the improvement idea
  • A prior art list with any similar patents or provisional patents that show how your improvement or invention is different
  • A claims section with detailed specifications and drawings

A patent examiner will look at your application, existing patents, and other resources to make sure your idea is new. Many applications are rejected the first time, and you can submit revisions if needed. The most common reason for rejection is because the patent is already covered by prior art. Inventors who eliminate the conflict with prior art can eventually get their applications approved.

Basic vs. Improvement Patents

An improvement patent usually covers technology that builds directly on the technology in a basic patent. It's not just an alternate way to do the same task as an existing patent. There should be meaningful technical differences between the improvement patent and the basic patent. Otherwise, the improvement patent won't be considered novel. Also, someone skilled in your field should not find that those differences are obvious. Otherwise, the patent may not be valid. 

Any benefits to using the improvement will contribute to patentability. For example, there could be a basic patent for a metal alloy with a specific composition, and then someone could submit an improvement patent for an alloy with three metals instead of two. This improvement can't be obvious or covered by prior art. It should be an actual improvement over the basic patent, not just a change with no real or hypothetical use. 

If the inventor of the basic patent submits an improvement patent less than a year later, it won't be considered prior art. However, the USPTO will consider the differences between the basic patent and the improvement patent in all other circumstances.

Many improvement patents require a license agreement with the owner of the basic patent for use. For example, there could be a basic patent for a chair with three legs and an improvement patent for a chair with four legs. Making, selling, or using the four-legged chair or another improvement of the basic patent would infringe on it without a licensing agreement.

If you need help with improvement patents, you can post your legal need or post your job on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from excellent law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law. They have an average of 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.