In the United States when you write a poem or take a photograph you immediately own the intellectual property rights, or copyright, to that item. You can control how that image or words are reproduced or used. Once you work through an idea for an invention or discover something new, you can apply for a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to ensure that nobody can make, use or sell that invention or discovery for 20 years. There are three types of patents: utility, design and plant. The first two cover types of inventions of new original objects and the third covers the invention or discovery of a plant species.
Do your research. Understand what patent law is and how it applies to your idea. A light bulb may have gone on in your head, but an abstract idea cannot be registered with the patent office.
Search for existing patents with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This can be done by searching through its online database (uspto.gov), on site at the main patent office in Alexandria, Virginia, or at your local Patent and Trademark Depository Library, which is available in every state.
Patent searches can be excruciatingly difficult. For that reason, private companies, such as Google, have put together online databases that make searching for patents easier.
Hire a lawyer or agent who specializes in patent law if you are serious about following through with the patent application. A lawyer or agent will pull together all patents related to your own invention, explain the intricacies of the law, and tell you exactly what you will need for your application. Although hiring a specialist is expensive, it can save time and avoid confusion.
Take the time to be sure of what you have. Do not apply for a patent for something that is only a partial idea. Put together detailed notes, design plans, and a fully functioning prototype of the invention. Test that the invention does what you intend it to do and that there are no glitches.
File a provisional application to establish an early filing date. This step is not required but gives the inventor a patent-pending status at the USPTO and establishes a filing date while you are pulling together material for a non-provisional application.
- Using or selling your invention before obtaining a patent can cause you to lose out on a patent all together. There is debate, especially in the medical community, about whether publishing prior to patent is a good idea. These are other issues that a lawyer or agent can help you answer.
- Don't be confused if you run across references to the USPTO's Disclosure Document Program, which allowed inventors to file a document disclosing an invention as evidence of the date of conception. This program was discontinued in 2007 in favor of the provisional application.