Welcome to the Patent Primer. The kids have closed their books for the summer, but your industrious mind is working on an innovation. If you have an idea for a future product that you’d like to develop or bring to market, maybe you need a few lessons. Applying for a patent can often be complex and daunting — so follow this guide to answer a few basic questions.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is the government agency responsible for examining and issuing patents. For more detailed information, visit the official USPTO website.
1. Why do I need a patent?
Simply put: you need to protect your rights over your invention. Particularly, the patent ensures your right to exclude others from its use and sale, as well as importing into the US. This will block competitors from developing the same product as you are or claiming that your invention is actually theirs as they run off to market it. Even if you later decide not to go through with the development of your invention, you may be able to license it to another business.
2. Are there are different types of patents?
Yes. And how do you know where your idea fits? In the US, there are three types of patents that you can apply for depending on the nature of your invention. Each has unique requirements and processes that you must undergo during the application process.
- Utility Patent – This is the most common type of patent. It covers inventions that are new and useful processes, machines, manufactured items, or compositions of matter. In addition, you can submit a patent application for a new and useful improvement to any of these. Utility patents subdivide into electrical, chemical, and mechanical categories. In short, a utility patent protects how your invention functions. Have you invented a flying coffee maker? Describe how it works. That is a utility patent.
- Design Patent – The design patent protects the visual appearance of your invention, such as size, style and shape. The invention must not be functional in nature, but describe “ornamental” aspects. Prior to applying, you must ensure there is no other aesthetically similar product that has been patented. Does your flying coffee maker have a unique look and feel, aside from the new functionality? Perhaps you can patent the design.
- Plant Patent – This is the least common and most specific of the three patents. This patent covers the discovery of new, unique plants that are asexually produced (i.e., offspring arise from a single organism). This patent protects the growth and sale of mutant or hybrid plants; it is restricted to the individual that discovered the plant and filed the patent. Have you developed a new variety of plant that produces specific beans to work with for your flying coffee maker? That might be novel enough for a plant patent.
3. How long do patents last?
Just as the criteria of each patent differ, so do the lengths of protection and fees. The utility patent is good for 20 years from the date of the patent application. It is important to take note of the fees required to maintain protection. Although expensive, it might be worth the investment. Utility patents also require fees throughout the 20 years to maintain protection. Beyond the 20 years, patent protection can be extended depending on individual circumstances, but this rarely occurs.
Comparatively, design patents last for only 14 years from the date the patent application was accepted. There are no maintenance fees. This may seem like the less expensive option; however, keep in mind that the design patent does not cover the functionality of the invention.
Plant patents, like utility patents, last for 20 years, but have no maintenance fees.
4. I have a US patent, but what if I need protection outside the US?
US patents do not provide protection outside the US. Additionally, however warranted, there is no universal international patent law. Rather, patent laws can vary between countries. While there are a few rules that are likely to apply to patents in all countries, not all do. It’s important to research the specific rules for the country you want to extend the patent to. Fortunately, there is the Patent Cooperation Treaty that makes the process a bit easier. It allows you to apply for patents across different countries. Like the US, you will incur initial fees and have maintenance costs to cover depending on the country you are filing in. For example, in New Zealand, the fees for a US patent to extend to NZ can range from NZD 180 to NZD 3,000. You’ll also need to think about your tax obligations when filing in different countries. It may be a good idea to contact an accountant or tax company for help here, as the rules can be complex.
5. Who can I ask for advice?
There’s no such thing as too much help. Patent law can often be confusing and tedious, so find a patent attorney. Not only can they help you navigate the process, but also ensure that your application is well written and positioned for patentability.
Online tools are also available. Whether you are an independent inventor, part of a team, or working for an innovative organization, IP.com has tools and services that help you determine the patentability of your idea. You can search our extensive Prior Art Database to identify whether similar work already exists; if it does, then it could block your patent. For thorough solutions that include extensive database searches and advanced analytics, check out InnovationQ. The beauty of these tools is that they are all semantics-based – easy to use and highly productive.
IP.com offers a range of products and services to assist with the entire process of protecting your intellectual property. But that is just the beginning. After you ensure your invention is correctly protected, you can get to the good part: monetization. To find out more, contact IP.com.