Staples | What is a Patent?

What is a Patent?

What is a patent?

A patent provides the holder with the exclusive right to make, use, and sell an invention throughout the U.S. during the term of the patent.

There are three forms of patents: design, utility, and plant.

Design patents are granted for any new, original and ornamental design for an article of manufacturing. Design patents cover the aesthetic appearance of an invention, such as the appearance of a fax machine or lamp. Design patents have a term of 14 years in the United States. It is believed that design patents are the weakest form of protection, because the competition can avoid a charge of patent infringement by making only minor changes to designs.

Utility patents cover the functional features of an invention and are granted for any new and useful process, machine, business method, manufacture or composition of matter, or for any new and useful improvement. For example, the switching mechanism in a lamp, or the electronics in your fax machine could fit this category. A utility patent generally lasts 20 years from the date of filing.

The third type of patent, a plant patent, protects a new form of greenery or plant. The list of what cannot be patented includes laws of nature and physical phenomena.

The protection you'll get from your patent is effective only once it is granted, and not during a patent pending period. You may be able to get a Provisional Patent Application (PPA), which is a lower–cost first patent that allows filing without a formal patent claim, oath, or declaration, or any information disclosure statement. It allows the term "Patent Pending" to be applied.

Remember that a U.S. patent may only protect you in the United States, and may not stop someone in another country from manufacturing and selling your product outside the U.S. If you want to protect yourself in other countries that honor U.S. patents, you can obtain an international patent under the Patent Cooperation Treaty or a patent with the European Patent Office.

How to obtain a patent

You must file an application with the patent and trademark office, where the examiners determine the originality of your invention. The patent process takes from 12 to 18 months and can cost between $3,000 and $10,000, including legal fees. The fee the patent office charges depends on some factors such as the size of your business and the number of claims in the patent application. You must apply for a patent within one year of the time a product is first offered for sale or disclosed publicly.

While you can complete all patent paperwork yourself, it is recommended that you consult with an attorney during the process, because self–made protection papers may not stand up to litigation. If you want to save money on legal fees, draft the patent papers yourself and have an attorney review them, rather than having the attorney draft original papers. You can also use the services of a patent agent. To get a list of patent agents who are registered to practice before the Patent Office, contact the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office 202–512–1530, or visit the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site.

If you decide to hire a company that promises to patent and market your product for you, be careful. Try to use one that is recommended by another entrepreneur, has good references and is well regarded by a knowledgeable source, such as your state Attorney General's office. There are reputable companies on the market, but there are also scam artists looking to profit off other people's lack of knowledge.

A word of caution

The patent process can be lengthy and expensive, so before you embark on it make sure you have researched your product and determined that it has a market. You should also determine that the product you are interested in is not already patented before you spend time and money on the application process. To do this, you can go to the Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C. or search the patent libraries located across the country. However, these searches can turn up false negatives, so you may want to hire a patent attorney knowledgeable in the type of invention you are patenting to conduct a search for you.


For patent information and applications call 800–786–9199, write to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Washington D.C. 20231, or visit its Web site. If you have further questions call 703–308–HELP.

The previous content is provided by OPEN: The Small Business NetworkSM from American Express.

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