Some simple patents are essential when you need to protect your ideas or inventions from theft.  One area a patent protects is a "trade secret," which isn't disclosed through the goods that a company sells. For example, Coca-Cola doesn't reveal the recipe for making the popular soft drink. With a trademark, you can protect an identifier like a name or a logo that customers associate with your product or service. Copyrights protect works of authorship or artistry. Many inventions have a trademark and a copyright as well as a patent. Here's some basic information about patents.

Types of Patents

Patents are limited government monopolies that keep others from making, selling, or using your inventions in the United States. There are three different types of patents:

  • Utility patents for new and useful processes, improvements, machines, or manufacturing methods.
  • Design patents for new, original, ornamental product designs.
  • Plant patents for new plant varieties.

Utility patents and plant patents expire 20 years after the filing date. For design patents, the term is 14 years.

Protection

Protection means that an intellectual property holder has the right to prevent others from using the property. A patent won't give you the right to use your invention by itself, but you can keep other people from using your idea.

You can license others to manufacture, sell, or use your invention and sue companies or individuals that profit from your work without your permission. If someone invents the same product you sell, he or she can't profit from the idea without permission from you. The first to file a patent benefits from its protection. That means someone else could patent your invention if you wait to apply.

Patents protect inventions while copyrights safeguard books, computer programs, movies, paintings, and other works of art. Copyright protection gives you the right to control who can copy your work. You can sue for protection unless the person who created the work of authorship or art has never seen your copyrighted work. Patent protection is limited territorially. For example, United States patents only offer protection in the United States.

Basic Patent Requirements

Inventions must meet basic eligibility requirements to qualify for patents. They should be:

  • Useful.
  • Novel.
  • Nonobvious.
  • Not public knowledge before the filing date.

Most inventions are considered useful, but perpetual motion machines and similar devices sometimes can't meet this requirement. An idea is obvious if many people in your field with ordinary skills already know about it.

Patenting Your Invention 

A patent must have the name of the inventor or co-inventor, even if he or she was employed by another person or company when creating the invention. People who invest in a product are not considered inventors. An employer or investor often owns the patent, but it's issued in the name of the inventor. Many inventors sign employment contracts with pre-assignment clauses that make the inventions they create at work company property. They could be sued for breach of contract if they sell, use, or license their inventions without their employers' consent.

Patenting a Process

The United States doesn't provide patents for physical phenomena, laws of nature, abstract ideas, or nonuseful objects. However, you can patent these types of ideas or inventions:

  • Processes or methods, like business processes, software, or engineering techniques.
  • Machines that can perform functions.
  • New compositions for makeup, pharmaceuticals, or other substances.
  • Articles of manufacture, tools or objects that make tasks easier.

Costs

You'll need to pay filing fees and consult an intellectual property attorney to file a patent. Before you file, think about whether the expense is worth it. You could be wasting money if you can't market or sell your invention.

A provisional patent is a simplified application that preserves your filing date. After you submit it, you'll have one year to file your full, nonprovisional application. You can use the time to prevent errors and do additional research to make sure that a nonprovisional patent is worth the time and money needed. You can use a patent assignment to transfer your ownership rights after you file your provisional patent. You should use as much detail as possible to describe your invention. However, there are many simple inventions with short patent descriptions, like the Slinky, Legos, and even a plastic stick for dogs.

If you need help with simple 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 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, Stripe, and Twilio.