The patent process can be challenging if you are not familiar with it, so the frequently asked questions below will provide useful information regarding the patent process. Additionally, the Patent Electronic Business Center found on this page provides more helpful links for the novice inventor.
What is a patent?
A patent is a property right granted by the Government of the United States of America to an inventor “to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States” for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention when the patent is granted.
Who can apply for a patent?
A patent may be applied for only in the name(s) of the actual inventor(s).
What can and cannot be patented?
What can be patented – utility patents are provided for a new, nonobvious and useful:
- Article of manufacture
- Composition of matter
- Improvement of any of the above
Note: In addition to utility patents, encompassing one of the categories above, patent protection is available for (1) ornamental design of an article of manufacture or (2) asexually reproduced plant varieties by design and plant patents.
What cannot be patented:
- Laws of nature
- Physical phenomena
- Abstract ideas
- Literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works (these can be Copyright protected). Go to the Copyright Office .
- Inventions which are:
- Not useful (such as perpetual motion machines); or
- Offensive to public morality
Invention must also be:
- Adequately described or enabled (for one of ordinary skill in the art to make and use the invention)
- Claimed by the inventor in clear and definite terms
How do I know if my invention is patentable?
First, review the list of what can and cannot be patented and determine if your invention falls into one of those categories.
Second, learn the basics of the patenting process from the materials provided by the USPTO at 800-PTO-9199 or 703-308-HELP or under "General Information." .
Next, a search of all previous public disclosures (prior art) including, but not limited to previously patented inventions in the U.S. (prior art) should be conducted to determine if your invention has been publicly disclosed and thus is not patentable. A search of foreign patents and printed publications should also be conducted. While a search of the prior art before the filing of an application is not required, it is advisable to do so. A registered attorney or agent is often a useful resource for performance of a patentability search. After an application is filed, the USPTO will conduct a search as part of the official examination process. Conducting a thorough patent search is difficult, particularly for the novice. Patent searching is a learned skill. The best advice for the novice is to contact the nearest Patent and Trademark Resource Center (PTRC) and seek out search experts to help in setting up a search strategy. If you are in the Washington, D.C. area, the USPTO provides public access to collections of patents, trademarks, and other documents at its Search Facilities located in Alexandria, Virginia. These facilities are open weekdays (except holidays) from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
How long does patent protection last?
For applications filed on or after June 8, 1995, utility and plant patents are granted for a term which begins with the date of the grant and usually ends 20 years from the date you first applied for the patent subject to the payment of appropriate maintenance fees for a utility patent. There are no maintenance fees for plant patents . Design patents last 14 years from the date you are granted the patent. No maintenance fees are required for design patents.
Note: Patents in force on June 8, 1995 and patents issued thereafter on applications filed prior to June 8, 1995 automatically have a term that is the greater of the twenty year term discussed above or seventeen years from the patent grant.
How much does it cost to get a patent?
Fees vary depending on the type of patent application you submit. Fees may also vary according to the way you "claim" your invention. More information on filing fees and the number and type of claims.
There are three basic fees for utility patents:
- The filing fee, which is non-refundable whether or not a patent is granted. (This is the cost to have your invention "examined" by the US Patent and Trademark Office - remember, you may or may not get a patent!)
- The issue fee (you pay this only if your application is allowed)
- Maintenance fees (paid at 3 1/2, 7 1/2, and 11 1/2 years after your patent is granted - these fees "maintain" your legal protection).
- Additional fees may be required.
You are strongly advised to check the current fee schedule before submitting your application.
What is a PCT application?
The Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) is an international agreement for filing patent applications having effect in many countries around the world. Although the PCT system does not provide for the grant of “an international patent”, the system simplifies the process of filing patent applications, delays the expenses associated with applying for patent protection in foreign countries, and allows the inventor more time to assess the commercial viability of his/her invention. Under the PCT, an inventor can file a single international patent application in one language with one patent office in order to simultaneously seek protection for an invention in the PCT member countries. For more information see