What Is an Invention?

As defined by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), inventions must be useful, novel, and not obvious to those with average knowledge of the industry in question. An invention may improve outdated technology, create a method or process, satisfy a specific need, or consist of a material composition.

The USPTO considers an inventor anyone who has contributed ideas to a creation. Only an inventor can apply for patent protection for an invention. They may also be referred to as innovators.

What Should I Do if I've Created an Invention?

First, submit an Invention Disclosure Report Form to the Office of Intellectual Property and Technology Transfer; it's important that you take this step before disclosing anything about your invention to the public. If you have already publicly disclosed your creation, you may be ineligible for patent protection. Public disclosures may include presentations, posters, discussions with potential investors, lectures, grant applications, thesis defenses, abstracts, and journal submissions.

How Can I Protect My Intellectual Property?

Anyone who creates something automatically owns the IP for that item in most cases. However, if you invent something as part of a project commissioned by an academic institution or company, that entity typically owns the IP.

Methods for legally protecting your IP include:

  • Patents, which protect how an invention works
  • Registered designs, which protect the appearance of an invention
  • Trademarks, which protect elements such as names, slogans, and logos
  • Copyrights, which protect the way in which the invention expresses an idea

Items covered under copyright include works of art, music, and literature, including but not limited to sculpture, plays, books, choreography, and clothing and jewelry designs. These laws are designed to encourage artists to create by allowing them to make money from their work.

Patents protect the way an idea is used and must be new, useful, and not obvious. This form of protection can cover chemicals, machines, processes, plants, designs, drugs, and other inventions. Others are not allowed to use, make, sell, and market that invention for a specific time period, typically 20 years.

Trademarks protect elements of a product or service that distinguish it in the marketplace. This includes names, titles, and slogans and is designed to prevent marketplace confusion.

Many works are eligible for overlapping IP protections. For example, a logo can be both trademarked and copyrighted.

What Rights Are Provided by a Patent?

When an inventor obtains a patent, he or she has the exclusive right to make money from that patent. In exchange for this legal protection, the inventor publicly discloses the details of his or her invention in the patent application.

A patent owner can license the right to manufacture and market the product to a third party in exchange for royalty payments. He or she can also sell the patent rights to a third party.

After the patent term ends, the invention enters the public domain and can be used, sold, and adapted by others.

How Long Does Patent Protection Last?

If you pay the required maintenance fees for your patent, it will provide legal protection for your invention for 20 years from the date you filed the original application. Design patents last for 14 years from the filing date.

What Types of Inventions Are not Patentable?

The USPTO does not grant a patent to inventions that have already been disclosed to or used by the public, whether in the United States or in another country.

An invention is also not patentable if it is too similar to prior art: other creations that have already been patented. Before submitting your patent application, conduct a patent search of public disclosures, existing patents, articles, journals, and other publications in your industry to look for similar inventions. The USPTO maintains an online patent database, and you can also search Google Patents.

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