Updated November 25, 2020:

Patent Application: What is it?

A patent application is a series of documents called a public disclosure to protect a business's intellectual property for an invention. A manufacturer or designer gives documents that relate to an invention's design or the way it works to the United States (U.S.) Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

What Do Patent Applications Do?

Patent applications let businesses protect their intellectual property rights. An application claims that ornamentation (how an object looks), its structural design, utility (its function), or other qualities are not copied off something else. If you've never applied for a patent before, you might find the process difficult. A lawyer with experience in patent applications can help you. Without a patent, you can't stop other companies from copying your designs or technology and making money from them.

You can apply for these types of patents:

  • Utility: This patent protects a product's function, how it works. If you've designed a new stove that uses a special heating process, you can patent your stove's unique heating method.

  • Design: A design patent protects a product's specific ornamentation, how something looks, or its structural design. You could apply for a design patent if you've made a pair of shoes with unique laces or straps. Think about what makes your shoes different in design from all other shoes sold.

  • Software: A software patent protects a specific software program and the way its makers want people to use it.

  • Plant: If you've created a new botanical plant species, you can patent the plant to stop others from claiming they made it.

You can also get a provisional utility patent which is faster, costs less than other types of patents and gives you one year to file the full patent forms. During that year, you can label the product's utility, or how it works, as "patent pending." However, if you don't meet the deadline, your product won't be protected from patent infringement.

The provisional patent application (PPA) isn't as detailed as a regular patent application (RPA), but both give you protection from the date you file it.

However, the PPA itself does not give you a patent. The PPA simply gives you the right to call your product "patent pending" and gives you 12 months to decide if you want to file for an RPA. If you want to file an RPA, you can protect your product from the date you filed your PPA instead of the date you list on the RPA forms.

You can check on your PPA or RPA using your patent application number. On the USPTO website (uspto.gov), search for that number to learn about what's happening with your patent application.

Why Are Patent Applications Important?

Patents protect a product's function, design, or origin so that other companies can't infringe on the patent holder's intellectual property. To get a patent, whether provisional or non-provisional, a business needs to first send an application for review. The USPTO will either approve or reject the application.

Filling out the patent application correctly will speed up the process and reduce your chances for denial. Many companies use patent lawyers to help them bring together the right documents and send them to the USPTO.

When the USPTO gets patent applications, reviewers compare the details in the application against patents that already exist. The reviewers look for prior art or issued patents, that match the idea you submitted. If reviewers find prior art, the USPTO will turn down your patent application.

When Do You Need to Send a Patent Application to the USPTO?

If you don't send a patent application to the USPTO, you can't protect your intellectual property. Here's what could happen: Another company could see your product's design, copy that design exactly, and sell their product with your design. Even worse, that company could patent the design. Doing so would lower the first creator's market share and brand identity. If someone else patents a product's design or how it works, you could be sued for patent infringement.

You should send a patent application to the USPTO before you bring your product to market. Make sure you protect your trade secrets so that other companies don't know what your designs look like or do and you can apply for a patent before anyone else can.


If you file a patent application and the USPTO approves your application, you must pay the filing fee within three months.

If you get a patent, you must pay maintenance fees to keep your patent active. You have to pay the fees every 14 years on design patents and every 20 years on utility patents. Otherwise, the patent expires and you won't be able to keep your intellectual property safe.

Include a certificate of mailing with your application. This certificate says that you have submitted your application on an exact date and sent your application to a certain address. Sign and date your certificate.

You can include a return envelope or a postcard in your application if you want the USPTO office to tell you when its office gets your application. If you send your application online, you don't need a certificate of mailing.

Common Mistakes

Don't make these mistakes when you file your patent application:

  • You file the wrong paperwork: Make sure you use the right electronic patent application at the USPTO website. Here's one reason: The design patent application is not the same as the utility patent application.

  • You don't do patent research: Do a patent search before you apply. You don't want to waste money on fees if another company already has a patent on your design or product.

  • You forget to be as exact as possible: Drawings and text must have as many specifics as you can give. You want to prove that your product is unlike anything else created.

  • You don't send very good drawings: The USPTO usually wants to see drawings in black ink on white paper. You could use black-and-white photographs in some cases and colored drawings and photographs in rare cases.

  • You don't send drawings with a PPA: If you need drawings to fully tell reviewers about your invention, send them. Send the drawings even if you file for a PPA instead of a regular patent. Make sure your drawings show each side of the object.

  • You don't understand what you need to do: Review 35 U.S.C. 112, a section of the U.S. Code that explains form and content for patent applications. Make sure you understand what you need to do before you write your description.

  • Don't use words like "essential" or "definite": Leave out words that might limit your product or invention.

  • Use broad descriptions: When you write about your design or invention, use general words. You might say that you attach two pieces of material together, not glue, sew, or pin.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What rights can a patent protect?

    A patent protects a made product. No other company or person can create the same product. A patent keeps the patent holder's intellectual property safe.

  • How long does the application process take?

    The length of time can vary, but the USPTO usually processes design patent applications within 12 months. Utility patents often take up to two years to get approved.

  • Does the application itself give you any protection?

    When you apply for a provisional patent and you get approval, you have 12 months to decide if you want to fill out the patent application. During that time, no one else can copy your invention or file for a patent on it. You might also be able to sue someone for trade secret misappropriation, copyright infringement, or breach of contract.

  • How much does a patent application cost?

    Patent application fees are different depending on the patent type. While utility patent filing fees cost only $280, if you hire a lawyer to help you with your patent application, your cost can go from $199 for a provisional patent to $10,000 for a full patent. Issuance fees can cost close to $65 to file a PPA, $400 to file a full patent and $450 to get a patent issued while maintenance fees can cost between $400 and $1,850. The maintenance fee schedule also increases over time.

Steps to File for a Patent Application

When you create and send a patent application to the USPTO, you must get several documents together. The exact patent application process will be different based on the patent type, but the process itself often has the following steps:

  1. Write an abstract and a specification that lets you talk about your invention and its use.

  2. Describe the background behind your invention or design.

  3. Give a summary of the invention or design.

  4. Show drawings that tell reviewers why and how your design or invention is unique.

  5. Send your application.

  6. Pay the application fee.

A patent application is only the first step toward keeping your invention safe from people who want to steal your intellectual property. Post your patent-related legal needs here to get matched with the top 5% of lawyers who can help you file your patent application.