A patent grants an inventor the right to stop others from using or benefiting from an invention for the term of the patent. This right usually lasts for 20 years from the application filing date (not the approval date). Design patents last 14 years from the date granted.

If you have invented anything you believe to be commercially viable, it's a good idea to consider filing for a patent before making it public or you risk having it stolen. Not doing so may also result in denial of international patents, should you want those.

Get started Create Your Provisional Patent Application Answer a few questions. We'll take care of the rest.

Types of Patents

You can apply for one of three types of patent, depending on your invention:

  • A Utility patent protects new and useful machines, processes and chemicals, as well as improvements to these things. Examples include processes in computer software that produce useful results, computer hardware, drugs and chemical processes. The key here is that the invention must be useful.

  • A Design patent protects a unique appearance or design that is strictly ornamental, not functional. Examples include athletic shoe appearance, jewelry and furniture design.

  • A Plant patent protects new plant varieties that have been invented or discovered and asexually reproduced.

Provisional v. Non-provisional Applications

Your initial patent application for a utility or plant patent may be one of two types. A non-provisional application is the full package, which will be examined by the USPTO and either accepted or rejected.

You may also file an initial provisional application to get the ball rolling, but this application will not be examined and will not lead to a patent on its own. You will need to file a non-provisional application within 12 months, or your provisional application will be considered abandoned.

One of the biggest advantages of starting with a provisional application is that it is easier and cheaper to file than a non-provisional application, so you can stake your claim to your invention quicker. This is important because patents now go to the first person to file for protection, not necessarily the first to invent something. In addition, you may begin using the 'patent pending' designation on your invention as soon as you file. This means you can start promoting or manufacturing it-and assess if it is commercially viable-with less fear of it being stolen.

How to Get a Patent

Before applying for a patent, you will need to determine if your invention is patentable. You cannot patent laws of nature or ideas, but you can patent processes that rely on them. In addition, your invention must:

  • Be completely new and unknown

  • Not have been previously patented or described in a printed publication, as determined by a patent search

  • Contain non-obvious differences from similar previously described inventions

If your invention qualifies, you may file your application through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's (USPTO) EFS-Web. It will need to include:

  • Your specification, which is a written document containing the title of the invention, a detailed description and how it is used, among other things

  • An oath or declaration stating that you believe you are the first to invent your item or process

  • Your signature

  • A drawing of your invention, if necessary

  • All appropriate fees

The USPTO has very specific rules for assembling your application package and even how you present your drawing. It's a good idea to have an experienced patent lawyer help with your application.

Once you have your patent, you may need to pay maintenance fees every few years to prevent it from expiring early. In some cases, you can extend your patent by up to five years.

Leahy-Smith America Invents Act

In September 2011, President Obama signed the America Invents Act, a long overdue reform of the U.S. patent system. One of the most important changes it ushered in was how patents are granted. The first person to file a patent application now has the right to the patent. Previously it was the first person to come up with the invention, which could often be difficult to prove. In addition, under the act, individual inventors may be eligible to pay significantly lower filing fees.

Patent Protection in Foreign Countries

A U.S. patent does not protect your invention in other countries, which generally have their own patent laws. You will need to follow each country's regulations to gain protection outside of the United States. You may also need a license from the USPTO to apply for a foreign patent, depending on the timing of your filing.

The United States is part of several treaties that make it easier to gain patent protection in participating countries. The 174 member countries (as of February 2012) of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property agree to treat each others' citizens the same as their own with regards to patents and trademarks. In addition, 146 countries are part of the Patent Cooperation Treaty and recognize a single, standardized application you can file once to gain protection in any of those countries.

It's a good idea to decide early whether you are likely to want foreign patents, since publishing your invention before filing may bar you from getting one in many countries. Filing a provisional application will help preserve your rights in both the United States and foreign countries, as long as you file your non-provisional application within 12 months.

Get started Create Your Provisional Patent Application Answer a few questions. We'll take care of the rest.

Get started Create Your Provisional Patent Application Answer a few questions. We'll take care of the rest.