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A patent is a type of intellectual property protection. Patents provide IP protection for new discoveries and inventions that are useful, novel, or non-obvious.

This article will discuss patent basics and provide resources to learn more niche topics regarding patents.

Patents and Intellectual Property

There are four types of intellectual property rights:

  • Trademarks - protect brand names, company names, business names, slogans, logos and symbols
  • Copyrights - protect original works of authorship like books, screenplays, and sound recordings in a physical form
  • Trade secrets - protect any confidential business information that provides your company with a competitive advantage
  • Patents - protect inventions or discoveries

To learn more about how patents differ from other intellectual property rights (IP rights), read FindLaw's How Patents Differ from Copyrights and Trademarks article.

Basic Overview

There are three types of patents available for inventions and discoveries: design patentsutility patents, and plant patents. To receive patent protection, the patent seeker applies with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

When people receive patent protection, they have the exclusive right to prevent others from making, selling, or using their inventions or discoveries.

FindLaw's section on Patents provides information on:

You can also find links to forms and resources from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Utility Patents

Utility patents are the most common type of patent. Utility patents are available for:

Utility patents can also protect new and useful improvements on existing processes or machines. Two types of applications are available for utility patents: provisional and non-provisional applications.

provisional patent application is filed if the applicant wants more time to decide if they want patent protection or to determine the specifics of the invention. A provisional patent application is temporary. It offers protection while the patent-seeker figures out the details of their invention.

non-provisional utility patent application is the official application one must file for patent protection. The patent application depends on the type of patent you seek. You can view the USPTO checklist here.

Design Patents

Design patents protect the surface ornamentation of an object or the shape or configuration of an object. This is how the object looks, like the original Coca-Cola glass bottle shape. A person who invents a new and non-obvious ornamental design on an object can file a design patent application.

Although the design and object are inseparable, a design patent only protects the object's appearance. To protect an object's structural or functional features, a person must also file a utility patent application, as long as the object qualifies for such protection.

Plant Patents

plant patent can be filed if someone discovers or invents a new and distinct plant. To receive a plant patent, the applicant must reproduce the new and distinct plant asexually. Asexual reproduction means that the plant's reproduction is by cutting or grafting the plant instead of seed reproduction.

A plant patent provides the inventor with the exclusive right to use, sell, or asexually reproduce the same plant.

The Patent Filing Process

Patents are filled, registered, and granted with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). There are several steps when filing patent applications. The USPTO's electronic filing system or mailed-in applications are how you file for a patent.

When filing the patent application, you must pay filing fees. These fees depend on the type of patent you apply for. After filing the patent application, the USPTO assigns a patent examiner to review the application. The patent examiner can issue office actions that require you to amend the application by providing additional information. The examiner can also reject the application altogether. If approved, you will receive a notice of allowance and must pay the required fees for the patent to be officially issued.

Before you begin the patent filing process, make sure you document your invention and ensure that your idea is useful, novel, and non-obvious. Do you know if your invention is patentable? Before filing a patent application, read FindLaw's patentability checklist to ensure your invention is patentable.

Starting in January 2024, all patent applications must be submitted in DOCX format along with a PDF application.

Patent Infringement

The main goal of most small business owners or entrepreneurs when applying for a patent is to protect their inventions. This includes infringers stealing their inventions. What exactly is patent infringement, and how can you prevent it?

Patent infringement is when someone makes, sells, uses, or offers to sell your invention without your permission. It is important to have a registered patent with the USPTO to help avoid patent infringementEnforcing patent rights and taking legal action is easier when you have a registered patent.

To learn more about patent infringement, visit FindLaw's Patent Infringement and Litigation page.

Filing for an International Patent

Some inventors also consider filing for a patent overseas. International agreements and treaties are in place for inventors seeking patent protection for an invention in other countries. Two treaties providing a framework for patent protection include the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) and the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property treaty. The PCT streamlines the international patent filing process. The Patent Convention provides a framework for ensuring priority and preserving the ability to submit additional applications in various countries.

International patent law is complex, so it's often best to contact a patent attorney who can help you with filing for an international patent.

Why Small Businesses Should Care About Patent Protection

As a small business owner, you should care about protecting your IP assets for many reasons. Having patent protection gives your inventors exclusive rights to their inventions. This exclusivity allows small business owners to exclude others from selling, using, or making their inventions.

Having a registered patent is useful when wanting to license, manufacture, or sell your product. Patent protection will help the overall brand credibility in the marketplace.

Read FindLaw's 10 Tips For Inventors to get a jumpstart on understanding why having IP protection is important.

Hiring a Patent Attorney

Patents are a very technical area of intellectual property law. It is difficult for many people to understand. Each type of patent application must include very specific information. Please include all of the necessary elements of a patent application to avoid a denial of your intellectual property application. Not following all of the requirements set forth by the USPTO can also result in your patent not receiving full protection under the patent laws of the U.S.

If you have questions about your invention or non-disclosure agreements or need help filing a patent application, it's a good idea to contact an experienced patent attorney near you.

Fundamental Patent Articles for Every Startup

Learn About Patents

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