Entrepreneurs are the backbone of American business. Startups less than five years old contribute almost all net new job creation in the U.S., and the startup economy is worth more than $3 trillion in global GDP. Some of the world’s best products and designs began with just an idea — a solution to a problem. For entrepreneurs, one of the most important aspects of business is protecting that idea with a patent to ensure no one else profits from your work. Here’s what the patent process looks like in action.
Step 1: What type of protection do you need?
Before you begin the patent application process, it’s important to know exactly what you need to protect. This differs for everyone and could include product specs, branding, software code, marketing plans, trade secrets, or any combination of the aforementioned. Is it a patent that you need or a copyright? Knowing exactly what you need for protection will save you time down the road.
Step 2: Is your innovation patentable?
If it is indeed a patent you need, the next step is figuring out if your invention is able to be patented. The United State Patent and Trademark Office’s (USPTO) FAQ page answers questions such as who can apply for a patent, what can and cannot be patented, and whether a specific invention is patentable.
A potentially useful step in the patent process is the search to determine if your invention has already been publicly disclosed. If it has, you cannot obtain a patent.
Step 3: What type of patent do you need?
Patents come in three types: utility, design and plant. Utility patents are the most popular type of patent and are used for a “new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or compositions of matters, or any new useful improvement thereof,” according to the USPTO. A design patent may be granted to someone who invests a new, original and ornamental design for a manufactured article. While it doesn’t really apply here, the lesser-known plant patent may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers a new variety of plant, not uncommon in agriculture.
Step 4: Create an application strategy
Your patent application strategy should address the cost of the patent application, how long it will take to receive a response from the USPTO, whether or not you need international protection, whether you want to file a provisional or nonprovisional application, and if you should hire a patent attorney. Because the preparation and application for a patent is such an undertaking, most entrepreneurs and inventors employ the services of registered patent attorneys or patent agents.
Step 5: Submit your completed application
Now is the time to submit your completed application and fee. The USPTO allows you to do this online and offers a basic tutorial for how to do so. First time online filers may contact the Patents Electronic Business Center for assistance. Of course, you can always get the help of an IP professional.
Step 6: Your attorney or agent works with the USPTO examiner
If you’ve hired professional representation, your attorney or agent will work with you to convince a patent examiner to convince them that your innovation is worthy of patent protection. If you’ve chosen to handle your application yourself, it is up to you to address the examiner’s questions and demands in the time frame stated or risk potential invalidation or abandonment of your patent application.
Step 7: Receive approval
If your application meets all requirements, an examiner will issue you a Notice of Allowance, which lists the issue fee and publication fee that must be paid prior to the patent being issued. After fees have been paid and processed, the USPTO will issue a patent number with an issue date, and also mail your patent grant. At this point, it’s important to work with your IP counsel to see what can be done to expand your patent coverage and/or to refine your innovative idea in order to squeeze additional value from your patent.
Securing a patent is vitally important to entrepreneurs and inventors, but, as the above has detailed, the process is no small feat. Working with a registered patent agent or attorney helps ease this burden and allows you to focus on what truly matters—your next idea.
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