Patent FAQ

Lia Kopin-Green
November 10, 2022

All patent application processes begin with a single most important step: the creation of an invention. However, if you want to make sure that no one else will use or sell your invention without your permission, you will need to seek legal assistance to register your patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Not sure where to start? Check out some of the most frequently asked questions about patents in the United States.

1. What is a patent?

In exchange for complete disclosure of an invention, patents provide the inventor or creator of a product or service with the exclusive rights to its unique process, design or system. According to U.S. intellectual property law, patents must be non-obvious, useful and novel. Further, patents, which take the form of a legal document, are an important element in encouraging innovation and creativity in the U.S. Patent applications are handled and approved by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), a government agency that is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

2. Who can apply for a patent?

The USPTO will grant patents to anyone who “invents or discovers any new and useful process, the 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.” Moreover, it is only possible to apply for a patent in the name or names of the actual inventor or inventors.

Although there are a number of important rules and restrictions in place for applicants in foreign countries, patent laws in the U.S. permit any inventor, regardless of his or her citizen, to apply for a patent.

3. What cannot be patented?

As stated above, an invention or creation is eligible for patent protection if it is non-obvious, useful and novel. An invention will not be patented if: 

  • It was known, used, patented or described by others in the United States before the patent applicant created it.
  • It was patented or described in a printed publication anywhere in the world more than one year prior to the inventor’s actual filing date of the patent application.
  • It was in public use or on sale in the United States more than one year prior to the inventor’s actual filing date of the patent application. 

A few common examples of things that cannot be patented include naturally occurring substances, laws of nature and calculation methods.

4. Are there different types of patents in the U.S.?

There are three main types of patents in the U.S.

Utility patents are the most common type of patent. These patents cover the creation of a new or improved, useful product, process or machine. Machines such as engines or computers as well as compositions of matter such as pharmaceutical medications are both examples of utility patents. 

Design patents protect the decorative design of an article of manufacture. They are typically granted to anyone who has invented a new and nonobvious ornamental design for something with practical utility. Ornamental designs can be found on jewelry, cars, furniture and product packaging.

Plant patents refer to intellectual property rights that protect a new and unique plant’s key characteristics. A plant can either be invented or discovered, natural or bred, but a patent will only be granted if the discovery is made within a cultivated area. Typical examples of patented plants include apple trees derived from cutting off pieces of the stems, not from germination of the seeds.

5. How long does patent protection last?

As a general rule, most patent terms last for 20 years. However, this number can vary depending on a number of factors, such as the type of application (utility, design, or plant), the actual filing date of the application, the grant date of the patent, and the timely payment of patent maintenance fees. For instance, certain design patents have a standard term of 17 years from the date of issuance.

To calculate your specific patent term expiration, use the USPTO’s patent term calculator or consult with an experienced patent attorney.

6. How much does it cost to obtain a patent?

While patents provide valuable protection for inventions and creations, they often come at a high price. You can expect to pay anywhere between $1,000 and $10,000 from start to finish. Some may even pay up to $20,000 in fees throughout the process. Exact patent application costs heavily vary depending on the type of patent required and the size of the business or entity filing the patent application. Total patent application costs are also affected by the amount of Office Actions filed throughout the process, since there are additional fees involved in responding to Office Actions.

7. How long does it take to obtain a patent?

Regardless of the type of patent application filed, there is no guarantee that you will receive patent approval within a certain amount of time. Nevertheless, the average amount of time it takes to obtain a design patent is between one to two years. When it comes to utility patents, it may take up to 5 years to receive official approval from the actual filing date.

8. Do I need a lawyer to file a patent application?

You do not need a patent attorney to apply for a patent and you may choose to file your application independently. However, it should be noted that working with an experienced patent attorney is highly recommended. Patent law is a highly technical legal field and drafting a patent application on your own can be incredibly difficult, even for the most simple of inventions. A skilled patent attorney can ensure that your application is completed correctly, putting you on the fast track to receiving federal protection for your invention.

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