If you have ever tinkered with building a device or if you have designed a process for completing a task, you may have wondered if you could get a patent on your work. If you are interested in pursuing a patent, it’s important to understand what patents do. You might assume that a patent gives you the power to make and sell your invention. In fact, a patent does not confer such a right. Rather, it keeps anyone else from making or selling what you have made. In other words, a patent is a right to exclude. Under U.S. law, a patent allows inventors to keep others from replicating their inventions for 20 years. The clock on that 20-year period doesn’t start ticking when the patent is granted but rather when the application is initially filed.
To obtain a patent, you must show that your invention is “new, useful, and non-obvious,” which means that your invention solves a problem or eases a process in a way that would not have been immediately apparent to other observers. While that hurdle may seem difficult to clear, a patent can be obtained for an improvement on an existing invention. For example, Edison’s famous patent on the light bulb was for an improvement on a design already in existence; Edison simply improved the filament in the bulb so that it would last longer.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) presides over granting patents. Inventors may file patents on their own, although because the process is complex, it is advisable to get the help of a registered patent attorney or agent. The initial application for a patent may be rejected by the patent examiner, but the inventor may amend the application or challenge the examiner’s decision. The USPTO grants three types of patents:
- Utility patents cover new machines, processes, or products. Your application must be supported with a detailed description of the product or process and charts or illustrations showing what it looks like and how it works.
- Design patents cover a product’s appearance: a style of shoe or a type of sofa might qualify for a design patent based on the way the objects look. These patents are easier to obtain than utility patents. Be aware that some services that promise to secure a patent for your invention will file design patents rather than utility patents, adding a figure or stamp to your invention that changes its appearance. You may end up with a patent for a funnel embossed with a flower rather than for the technology of the funnel itself.
- Plant patents are granted for the invention or discovery of new, reproducible types of plants.
If you have designed something new, useful, and non-obvious, it may be worthwhile to explore that patent application procedure, but be prepared for what can be a lengthy and complex process.
Kathleen Davies is a staff writer for GetLegal.com. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and has practiced law and taught legal writing and advocacy.