Patents FAQ

1. What is a patent?

A patent is a type of intellectual property that is designed to protect an inventor's right to claim that an invention belongs to him or her. This prevents other people from being able to use the invention as their own and to make money from it, unless the inventor grants them permission to do so. An inventor can be a person, group of people or a corporation or other legal entity. US patents are only enforceable in the United States and are generally effective for 20 years from the date the patent was filed. It is however possible to apply for international patents.

2. What can be patented?

In order for an invention to be capable of being able to be patented it must be:

  • Novel – whatever the invention is, it mustn't be too similar to someone else's patented invention. There are a lot of patents that are similar to one another, but that aren't so similar that one ‘infringes' the other.
  • Useful – a patent cannot be granted for example to a machine that has been modified (hence the novelty) but now doesn't work because of the modification.
  • Yours – you must be able to claim that you have the rights to the patent. If someone else is using the invention in another country, has had it printed in a publication, or it has been on sale for more than one year before the date you file the application in the US, you won't be granted a patent.

3. What types of patents are there?

There are three types of patents: utility, design and plant patents. Utility patents must be ‘new and useful' processes relating to any machine, manufacturing article (something which makes things) or composition of matter (ingredients, chemical compounds and chemical components) or any useful improvement thereof. Utility patents are the most common applications for patents in the US. Design patents are granted for manufacturing articles that have a new, original and ornamental design. Plant patents are granted when someone invents or discovers and reproduces (asexually) a new and distinct variety of plant.

4. What happens if I've invented something that someone's already invented?

If your invention is the same as someone else's, you would not be able to obtain a patent (as it is not new.) There are very good search facilities on the USPTO website. You can input search terms for keywords to do with your invention and see whether others have already come up with the same or a similar concept. However, if your invention is similar to but not the same as someone else's it is probably worth taking some advice on whether you could apply for a patent.

5. What should I know before applying for a patent?

It's worth considering whether there is likely to be any benefit to you in patenting your invention – and also whether your invention is useful. Without it being useful, it's won't be granted a patent. It's important to remember that patent attorneys' fees can be expensive and there are also fees for lodging the patent with the USPTO (United States Patents & Trademarks Office). The most obvious reasons to lodge a patent are because you think the invention may make you money, or to prevent someone from being able to claim it's their invention at a later date. However, applying for and being granted a patent does not necessarily mean that you will make money. An intellectual property attorney is the best person to help you decide whether your invention is patentable, and profitable.

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