Understanding Patents

Understanding patents takes some research, as there are different kinds of patents and a specific process to follow to get a patent. You must understand the rules about making an invention public and/or selling it to avoid forfeiting your rights to a patent. Each country has its own patent process, so a U.S. patent is only valid for that country.

What Is a Patent?

A U.S. patent is how the government grants property rights to an inventor so that others aren't able to use, sell, or produce the inventor's creation. Patents aren't the same as trademarks and copyrights. Patents refer to actual creations or mental concepts.

Trademarks deal with the right to use the following specific items: 

  • Word 
  • Name 
  • Phrase 
  • Logo 
  • Symbol 
  • Sound 
  • Design 
  • Color

Trademarks also cover a combination of these elements and are used to identify an entity's products and make them distinguishable from other products.

Copyrights are protections provided to authors of original works, including authorship of the following types of works: 

  • Dramatic 
  • Literary 
  • Artistic 
  • Musical 
  • Other intellectual works 

Patent owners maintain their patents by paying regular fees to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. If an owner fails to pay the maintenance fee, the patent expires, and the patent owner loses exclusive rights to the invention. Visit the USPTO website for more information about patents, or consult with a patent attorney to obtain a clearer understanding.

In the United States, plant and utility patents filed before June 1995 were valid for 17 years, starting with the date of acceptance. If an owner filed for a patent after this date, the patent will be valid for 20 years from the filing date. Design patents are valid for 14 years. Many other countries have the same time frame for plant and utility patents: 20 years.

While a patent is valid, the owner of the patent has exclusive rights to it. The inventor can sell the patent or transfer the rights over to another company or person. The inventor may charge companies a royalty to produce the patented product. Depending on the country where the patent is held, the owner of the patent may be required to let other entities use the creation under royalty.

Check the status of a patent to make sure your invention doesn't infringe on another's patent.

The best time to obtain a patent (assuming you follow all the appropriate guidelines and want to file the best patent) is after you've conducted a lot of research and development on your idea. In the event other competitors are developing the same idea, you might want to file as early as possible. Most companies prefer to hold a valid patent before pouring a lot of money into a project.

How to Get a Patent

You must invent something before obtaining a patent. You must have more than just an idea to get a patent. You need a working invention that meets the following criteria: 

  • Novel 
  • Useful 
  • Non-obvious

You should check existing patents as much as possible to make sure your creation is actually novel. You might want to do this even before you've completed your invention. You can check for patents at the Resource Center at the USPTO website, or you might have a patent attorney conduct the search for you. The USPTO site has a database of image and full-text patents dating from 1976 to the present.

A patent attorney enlists the services of companies that have patent attorneys, agents, and/or lay searchers working in the central patent office. To conduct a search through a patent attorney, expect to pay $1500 or more. A manual search is costly, but it's a reliable way of seeing if an invention has already been patented or made public. 

Computer databases contain plenty of patent information, but no information dates back to the first patent held. For the past 20 years, computer databases have begun storing patent abstracts. Someone could search on a database and pay a fraction of the cost of a manual search.

Understanding patents takes a lot of research, but you can hire an attorney to conduct some of the work for you. It's a long process, but it's worth going through if you've invented something that you wish to protect.

If you need help with understanding patents, you can post your legal need 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.