Can I Patent an Idea?

By Calla Hummel
Patentable inventions must have an industrial application.
machine image by Pali A from

You can patent an idea only if it has some kind of tangible manifestation. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office states that "a patent cannot be obtained upon a mere idea or suggestion." Patents protect processes and inventions, but the application process for one is so technically complex that inventors must know exactly what their invention does and how the invention does it.


A patent application consists of background information, description, drawings and claims. The description, drawings and claims must be as detailed as possible and conform to legal and technical writing standards. The claims in particular must describe exactly what the invention does and how it does it, and be written in a way that can hold up to legal arguments and challenges in court.


Once an inventor submits an application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), an examiner scrutinizes the application to ensure that the application follows USPTO guidelines and patentability guidelines. The examiner will ensure that the application does not infringe on any existing patents and that the description clearly shows that the invention can perform the claims.


Business processes can be patented, which from 1998 to 2009 almost amounted to patenting ideas. However the Bilski v. Kappos decision made patenting processes significantly more difficult. Patent attorney Gene Quinn published an article in the online patent law magazine IP Watchdog stating that in the post-Bilski era business processes can still be patented, but they must have a tangible form or expression.


Most ideas cannot be patented because they do not constitute inventions and the inventor does not have a concrete vision that can translate into a cohesive application. Furthermore, applicants should be aware that patents cost thousands of dollars in USPTO and attorney's fees and frequently take up to three years to receive.

About the Author

Calla Hummel is a doctoral student studying contraband in international political economy. She supplements her student stipend by writing about personal finance and working as a consultant, as well as hoping that her investments will pan out.