How to File a Patent

Getty Images/Photodisc/Don Farrall

You don't have to be Thomas Edison to come up with a valuable invention. But you do have to be savvy enough to protect that invention if you want to make the money you deserve from it. In other words, you need a patent, which is essentially a right granted by a government to sue anyone else (an infringer) who tries to make money from your idea. In the United States, only the inventor of the idea can patent it (though the inventor can transfer those rights to another individual or company).

Filing a U.S. patent application is a fairly complicated ordeal, however, and it can be rejected, which is why most experts recommend inventors hire an attorney to help them draft and file the patent application. As an inventor, you'll want to act fast in order to secure your rights -- in case someone later claims they came up with the idea first. Consider keeping an inventor's notebook and filing a provisional patent application to show you acted diligently in pursuing a patent.

Before you file, use the search function at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Web site to see if your idea has already been patented. Next, determine what kind of patent it is so that you file the right application.

The USPTO recognizes three kinds of patents. Utility patents, the most common type, refer to inventions that have a particular function. This is in contrast to design patents, which cover non-functional parts of articles, like the unique, ornamental shape or surface of an item. Lastly, a plant patent protects inventions of asexually reproducible plants. Don't confuse a patent with a trademark, a copyright or a trade secret, which are all different matters, and each is governed by its own laws.

You can file a patent application electronically through the USPTO Web site, by mail, or by fax (but not by e-mail). Don't expect a speedy process, though. Depending on the kind of application and the technology involved in your invention, it could take one to three years to get your patent granted.

A patent could also be rejected for many reasons, like failing the novelty and unobviousness requirements. Novelty means it's different from the prior art (previous patents or something known to the public). Unobviousness means that the invention is different enough from prior art that someone skilled in the area of technology wouldn't consider your idea obvious.

So, what do you need to file a patent? Keep reading to find out.