Sections included in this article:
1. What Is a Patent?
2. Can Anyone Obtain a Patent?
3. What Types of Patents Are There?
4. Should You Hire a Patent Lawyer?
If you have an invention you’d like to own, market and commercially distribute it, you’ll need to protect it legally with a patent. Without this designation, other entrepreneurs or inventors will be free to use your invention and profit off of it. Acquiring a patent is no small task, with the process often times being quite costly and confusing for newcomers. In addition to that, sometimes acquiring a patent can be a lengthy and thorough process, in some cases taking years to resolve.
Regardless, if you have an invention that you know you can market, acquiring a patent is the only way to legally do so. Accessing resources to better understand what’s required of you, or consulting with a patent attorney to navigate any complications, can speed up this process.
What Is a Patent?
A patent is a license issued by the U.S. government that protects an invention from being used or replicated by others for an extended period of time, usually from 15 to 20 years. Patents cover a broad range of inventions, from underlying technological methods and designs to a formula or specific process. They can be bought, sold, licensed or traded. In order to acquire a patent for your own original idea, you must apply for one.
There are limits to what can be patented. Patents must be novel, and you need to demonstrate that your invention is “non-obvious,” meaning sufficiently outside the realm of common knowledge for you to be able to effectively own it. Patents also cannot be acquired for ideas; a somewhat concrete concept is required. Patents can be taken out on any inventions, from useful to pointless.
The United States Patent and Trademark Offices (USPTO) states, “A patent cannot be obtained upon a mere idea or suggestion. The patent is granted upon the new machine, manufacture, etc., as has been said, and not upon the idea or suggestion of the new machine.”
Along with the benefits of legal protection, patents can give you an edge during negotiations if you’re licensing your invention and might give investors more of an incentive to work with you.
Can Anyone Obtain a Patent?
Anyone who has developed an original, sufficiently complex idea and manufactured an invention that meets patent requirements can apply for a patent. The USPTO explains, “any person who ‘invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent,’ subject to the conditions and requirements of the law.”
Employees, officers and representatives of the USPTO are not allowed to apply for patents themselves. They are further prohibited from acquiring patents, unless in the case of inheritance.
If you believe you have an invention worthy of being patented, you’ll need to follow the following steps to file an application:
1. Keep excellent records. You’ll need to record every step of your invention-making process to prove that your idea is your own.
2. Determine if your invention qualifies for patent protection.
3. Assess the commercial viability of your invention.
4. Conduct a thorough patent search online at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website.
5. Prepare and file an application with the USPTO.
What Types of Patents Are There?
• Utility Patent
A utility patent is granted to protect the invention of, discovery of, or improvement upon “any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter.” Utility patents protect the functionality and mechanism behind your invention.
• Design Patent
A design patent protects the ornamental and visual characteristics of a product. As with any patent, design patents must be non-obvious and novel: you cannot simply use an existing design in a new color. Design patents are both less expensive and less common than utility patents and often take less time to approve.
• Plant Patent
A plant patent protects new engineered species of plants, again provided the inventor can prove certain specified characteristics. Officially, the patent “may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.”
Should You Hire a Patent Lawyer?
You don’t need to be an entrepreneur, inventor or even have experience in the world of business to patent an idea. But if you’re coming into the patent game with little to no experience, speaking with a knowledgeable patent attorney is a suitable first step.
An attorney will help you navigate a confusing process, advocate for your invention’s importance and may also give you a better understanding of the role of a patent for your specific invention. In 2021 alone, roughly 650,654 patent applications were submitted, with the USPTO granting a total of 327,798.
Should yours be among the thousands selected, consider your overall intentions. Do you plan to produce and sell the technology or product you have patented? Do you plan to license the patent and collect royalties? Even if you have experience in the application process and a clear plan of use for your patent, it is recommended to hire a lawyer specifically trained in patent law to assist you in the process.