Understanding what a patent is, and more importantly if your idea needs one, can be a challenging and confusing process. By definition, patents protect your innovation so that others can’t profit off your hard work. So how do you know if you need one? To help explain and simplify what defines a patent, and how you can get one, we sat down with The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and asked a series of questions to make the process a bit easier to understand. Here is what we took away:
What is a patent?
A patent is a property right granted by the US Government to an inventor “to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States” for a specific period of time. In exchange for these exclusive rights, the inventor agrees to a public disclosure of the invention. Once the patent term is over, the invention is free for all to use.
Are there different types of patents?
Yes, there are 3 different types of patents: Utility Patents, Design Patents and Plant Patents. (We are going to focus on Utility and Design Patents – sorry to our fellow botanists!)
Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement of a prior invention.
Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture. The design patent protects only the appearance of an article, but not its structural or functional features.
What does that mean in layman’s terms?
Design Patent = Aesthetic
Utility Patent = Function
Which patent is right for me?
In general terms, a design patent protects the way an article looks, while the utility patent protects the way an article is used and works. Both design and utility patents can be obtained for an invention if it is new both in its utility (what makes it useful) and its appearance. Consideration should be given to whether the look of the article is unique, the function is unique, or if it is both.
When should you file for a patent?
The easy answer is that you should file for a patent as soon as possible as patents are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. However, the easiest answer is not always the right answer. The patent process is complex and there are a number of considerations involved in determining the timing of filing a patent application. Contact the USPTO to get further advice.
How much does it cost to file for a patent?
Fees vary depending on the patent type and the size of the filing entity. Design patents are generally less expensive to file than Utility patents. Also, fees are reduced by 50% for “Small Entity” applicants (i.e. individual inventor, small business, or not-for-profit organization). Further, fees are reduced by 75% for “Micro Entity” applicants (i.e. applicants who can establish a limited income and limited experience with patent application filings or an applicant employed by an institution of higher education).
Click here for detailed information on patent filing and maintenance fees.
Do patents ever expire?
Utility patent applications filed on or after June 8, 1995, expire 20 years from the date of filing. Design patents expire 14 years from the date of issuance.
Where do you file for a patent?
You can file a patent electronically through the USPTO’s Electronic Filing System. For more information, click here.
What is the most common mistake that you see among patent applicants?
The most common mistake made by applicants is not doing their homework. An inventor should familiarize herself with the patent system before filing an application. The USPTO offers a telephone helpline at 1-800-786-9199, and they frequently hold seminars to guide applicants in the patent process. This is a great service for inventors that are just starting out, as well as for seasoned inventors who may have a specific question.
Want/need more information about patents? Let us know in the comments below what you’re looking to find out and we’ll try to get it to you.
Special thanks to Mindy Bickel and Bob Scheibel at the USPTO for contributing to this post!