Protecting intellectual property is no small matter, but filing patents is an involved process. Here are some thoughts on how to tackle patenting your awesome invention.
Patents, Copyrights, and Trademarks, Oh My!
The laws surrounding intellectual property can seem murky, especially if you aren’t a legal expert. The United States government has special laws for different types of intellectual property, so you need to understand if what you have should be patented, copyrighted, or trademarked.
A patent protects new inventions, processes, and compositions of matter (such as medicines). Importantly, you cannot patent ideas—your invention or discovery must be embodied in a process, machine, or object.
A copyright is used to protect original works, such as a piece of art or literature.
A trademark protects names, short slogans, or logos.
Design Patents vs. Utility Patents
You must choose from several types of patents.
A design patent applies to new aesthetic designs for manufactured objects. If your design does not impact how an object or article functions, you should apply for a design patent. For example, a new design of a maple syrup bottle that does not change how it functions would require a design patent.
If your method or invention impacts the function of an object, you would want to apply for a utility patent. A maple syrup bottle that could keep itself warm would need a utility patent.
There are other types of patents, as well. Plant patents protect new varieties of flora that someone has created or discovered and then reproduced. Software patents protect new software.
The 4 Requirements of a Patent
There are 4 basic requirements for a patent. You should ensure your new design, process, or invention meets these requirements before investing time or effort.
- The subject matter of your patent must be patentable. Again, ideas cannot be patented. Neither can mathematical formulas, naturally occurring substances, laws of physics, or processes done entirely with the human body (like a dance step).
- Your invention must be novel, i.e., it must be new. What you are patenting must not be already in the public domain, part of prior patents, or in other published works.
- Unless you are applying for a design patent, your invention must have utility—it must physically accomplish something. In practice, this is a fairly low bar that mainly rules out highly dangerous or likely impossible inventions, like a proposal for a time machine.
- The invention must not be obvious—it must be inventive and new, even for someone with knowledge in the field the invention is categorized.
Hire a Lawyer and Submit an Application
Filing an application with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) can be overwhelming for many inventors, which is why many seek legal help. Legal services like LegalZoom can help you find out if your invention is already patented.
You will likely submit a provisional patent application as a temporary measure that provides a small level of protection against intellectual property theft.
The actual patent application is much more detailed, which is why legal help is recommended. You would not want to spend months, maybe even years, of effort and hundreds of dollars just for the office to reject it.