What is a Patent?

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A patent protects the rights of inventors by preventing others from replicating their invention.

🤔 Understanding patents

Patents are designed to protect the rights of individuals or companies that have invented a distinct new product, design, or process. They also apply to those who make a new and useful improvement to an existing product or way of doing things. A government body typically issues patents, which restricts others from trying to make, use, sell, or import that invention for a specified period. The US Patent and Trademark Office typically issues patents for terms of 20 years, although extensions are sometimes possible.


Let's say you succeed where many have failed and finally manage to build a better mousetrap.

If your mousetrap is different enough from those that have come before, you may be able to apply for a patent from the US Patent and Trademark Office. If you get one, no one but you will be allowed to build or sell a mousetrap like it without your permission for up to 20 years.


A patent is like having a PIN for your debit card…

If thieves steal your debit card, a PIN adds an extra layer of security that prevents them from taking your hard-earned cash. A patent works kind of the same way. If somebody tries to steal your invention, having a patent gives you firm ground to pursue legal action and prevent others from making money off your idea.

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What is a patent?

Government bodies issue patents to help protect the property rights of inventors and entrepreneurs. In the US, the Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issues patents, and the general term for a new one is 20 years.

This process helps prevent other companies or individuals from copying, using, selling, or gaining a profit from that invention for at least two decades from the day on which the USPTO formally approved the patent. In some cases, the agency grants extensions.

It's worth pointing out that patents don’t grant someone the right to make, use, sell, or import a product he or she invented — They just prevent others from trying to do so.

Patents are also typically only enforceable within a particular jurisdiction. That means if you file for a patent in the US, your property rights will only be protected against infringements in the US or its territories.

The USPTO does not typically help enforce a patent after it's issued — That's the patent holder's job. You can file patent infringement cases in federal district court.

What’s the difference between patents, trademarks, and copyrights?

Some people confuse patents with other intellectual property protections, like trademarks or copyrights. The key difference is that patents protect inventions, new processes, or distinct improvements on existing products or processes. There are also patents that relate to design and agriculture, such as plant patents, which aim to protect new plant varieties.

By contrast, trademarks protect unique symbols, words, names, or devices that are distinctly associated with a recognizable brand. (A servicemark means the same thing but applies to a service instead of a process.) Copyright protects those who create written, dramatic, musical, or other original artistic works.

For example, Taylor Swift might copyright her music so that nobody can generate income from it without permission. Meanwhile, Ford has secured patent protection for its dual-clutch transmission.

What are the types of patents?

The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issues three types of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents.

Utility patents

Utility patents are the most popular type of patent in the US. The USPTO grants these to individuals or companies that invent something new and "useful" (any invention designed to achieve a purpose that is widely considered useful).

A utility patent covers any machine, process, manufactured item, or composition of matter (like a new chemical substance) that is either new or a recognizable improvement on an existing item or process.

Design patents

Design patents are awarded to individuals or companies that invent an original ornamental design as part of a manufactured item.

For example, Coca-Cola received a design patent in 1915 to protect the signature shape of its classic glass bottles.

Plant patents

Plant patents apply to individuals or companies that invent or discover a new and distinct variety of plant that reproduces asexually, meaning part of a parent plant can be used to grow another identical plant.

How do you apply for a patent?

To get a patent in the US, you have to file an application with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Before applying, search existing patents using one of the USPTO’s online databases to make sure your invention doesn’t already exist. You should also carefully consider which type of patent you'll require: a utility patent, a design patent, or a plant patent.

There are several types of patent applications to choose from.

Non-provisional utility patent

A non-provisional utility patent is the most common patent type. The “non-provisional” part means you intend to apply for a utility patent as soon as possible. You can submit an application for one using USPTO’s EFS-Web system online, by post, or in person at the agency’s headquarters in Virginia.

You can file a patent application on your own if you're comfortable doing so, but it can get complicated. Some attorneys or agents specializing in this area and could assist you.

A complete application must include:

  • A Utility Patent Application Transmittal Form (Form PTO/AIA/15) or a transmittal letter
  • Relevant fees
  • Application data sheet (Form PTO/AIA/14)
  • The specifications of your invention with at least one claim that argues how or why it is unique
  • Drawings (if applicable)
  • An executed oath or declaration signed by the inventor confirming he or she is responsible for creating the invention, understands what’s in the application, and promises to send the USPTO any new information that could be relevant to the application

Depending on the type of invention you're trying to patent, you may need to provide additional information about the product.

USPTO waiting times can vary. In March 2020, the average waiting time for a non-provisional utility patent was 23.5 months. A free estimator on the USPTO’s website can help give you a rough idea of how long your application might take.

Provisional utility patent

If you'd like to apply for formal patent protection, but you aren't quite ready to file yet, you can make a provisional application for a patent.

A provisional patent secures you with a filing date one year from the point at which your request is granted. The benefit is that you can get patent recognition without submitting loads of claims about how your idea is original, and you can add a “patent pending” label to your invention for a year. You’ll also be appointed a filing date without necessarily including drawings. This gives inventors more time to tinker with creations, find investors, or track down parties interested in licensing the new invention before filing for a nonprovisional patent application. It’s also cheaper to apply for a provisional patent.

You can apply for a provisional patent online using the EFS-Web system or by post. To apply, you'll need to submit:

  • A Provisional Application For Patent Cover Sheet (Form PTO/SB/16)
  • Application data sheet
  • Drawings (if applicable)
  • The specifications of your invention (if applicable)
  • Relevant fees
  • Name of the inventor
  • Residence of the inventor
  • Invention title
  • The name and registration number of an attorney, agent, or a docket number (if your attorney submits one)
  • Correspondence address
  • Any government agency that has a known interest in your application

Plant patents aren't quite as standard, but if you're looking for advice on how to apply for one, resources are available on the USPTO website.

After you submit your application, the USPTO will appoint an examiner to your case. The examiner will contact you if your request is incomplete or the agency needs more information to make a decision. He or she may also come back to you with a rejection asking you to amend aspects of your application before resubmitting.

If your patent gets granted, you'll receive a Notice of Allowance detailing what happens next (including issue and publication fees you must pay).

Where can you find current US patents?

The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) offers several online resources you can use to find current patents.

If you'd like to find patents approved between 1790 and 1975, the USPTO maintains a database of scanned patent documentation. But to find a particular patent, you'll need to know its identification number.

For patents granted since 1976, the USPTO website has a quick search function that lets you find patents based on keywords, terms, or various fields, like the inventor’s last name, the city the patent was filed in, and more.

Alternatively, you can search through all existing and former patents in person at the USPTO's Public Search Facility in Alexandria, Va., or consult your nearest Patent and Trademark Resource Center.

Searching for patent applications can be a little complicated. The USPTO offers online tutorials with tips and search advice, but it may also be worth contacting a patent attorney or agent that is specially licensed to practice before the USPTO.

If you're just searching for fun or out of interest, there are a few less conventional means you can use to find current patents. For example, Google Patents is a dynamic search tool that lets you scroll through patents filed in various countries based on keywords.

What are some notable patents?

If you can think of an iconic invention that has changed lives, chances are it's been patented.

  • Eli Whitney got a patent in 1794 for his revolutionary invention, the cotton gin.
  • Samuel Morse received a patent in 1840 for his invention of the telegraph.
  • French chemist Louis Pasteur got a patent in 1873 for an "improvement in brewing beer and ale" that would go on to lay the foundation for modern brewing.
  • Thomas Edison got a patent in 1880 for the electric lamp (one of more than 1,000 US patents that listed his name).
  • Nikola Tesla received a patent in 1888 for inventing the "Electro-Magnetic Motor," which would go on to lay the groundwork for the electric cars we drive today.
  • Seth Wheeler gained a patent in 1891 for the toilet roll.
  • Guglielmo Marconi secured a patent in 1904 for his invention of the radio.

In terms of notable design patents, French artist Auguste Bartholdi gained one in 1879 for his design of the Statue of Liberty. In 1977, inventor Ralph Baer secured a design patent for the iconic (and to some, annoying) electronic game "Simon."

More recently, Steve Jobs patented the Apple iPod in 2007 (after applying in 2002) and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey was awarded a patent in 2013 protecting his invention of a "device independent message distribution platform."

What can and cannot be patented?

The US Patent and Trademark Office's (USPTO's) rules on what can be patented are pretty broad.

Any "new and useful" machine, manufactured item, composition of matter, or process (or an improvement of the above) may be eligible. The USPTO does offer a few definitions of these terms.

For example, "composition of matter" is defined as any “mixtures of ingredients as well as new chemical compounds.” So if you’re a scientist that produces a brand-new chemical, you may be able to patent it. Meanwhile, the word "process" is defined as “a process, act, or method, and primarily includes industrial or technical processes.”

Perhaps the most critical definition to bear in mind is whether your invention qualifies as "useful." In the context of patent applications, the USPTO defines “useful” to mean “the subject matter has a useful purpose and also includes operativeness.”

Apart from items that aren't new or useful, only a few notable exemptions can’t be patented. You can't patent inventions explicitly designed for use in an atomic weapon, abstract ideas, physical phenomena, or perceived laws of nature. For example, you couldn't try to patent a particularly beautiful rainbow.

Above all else, you can only patent something that exists — You can't patent an idea for something. If you want to secure a patent for an invention, you've got to invent it first.

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