If you're an inventor or visionary, you've probably dreamed of patenting a creation. From robotics and social distancing trackers to a customizable desk organizer, there were 646,244 applications for patents in 2020. But an application doesn't guarantee approval. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the federal agency that oversees and issues patents, only about 53% of applicants are awarded a patent.
Not every invention is patentable—or even worth patenting. But understanding patent basics and what the USPTO is looking for can help you get approved. Read on to learn about how a patent works, the different types of patents, the protections provided, and if they're right for your idea.
What is a patent?
A patent is an exclusive right that prevents anyone else from making, using, selling, distributing, importing, or selling your invention without permission for a set period of time. This timeline can extend up to 20 years, depending on the type of patent.
Provisional patent application
Under U.S. law, as part of the utility patent process, you can file a less formal provisional patent application that documents your claim to an invention while giving you time to perfect, experiment, determine commercial viability, etc.
This process gives you an extra year to plan your formal filing and gives you a priority filing date. Once your provisional patent application is granted, you can identify your invention as patent pending.
As the patent owner, you can sell or give your ownership to anyone you want. When the patent expires, your invention becomes available to the public, and anyone can sell, make, or use it from then on.
What protections do patents provide?
A patent gives you absolute ownership over your invention and prevents others from profiting off your thinking and hard work. A patent attorney can assist you through this process as well, as they specialize in patent law and practice. Here are other rights that the patent holder has under a patent:
- Right to claim damages: A patent holder has a right to damages for infringement if an infringer is using their patented invention without permission. The patent holder may also have a right to damages if the infringer's invention is substantially similar to the original invention.
- Right of sale: A patent holder has the right to sell, import, or manufacture their invention as they wish.
- Right to grant a license: A patent holder has the right to grant a license for the use of their invention to a third party. This allows the third party to legally use and benefit from the patent.
There are many inventions that have been created to make our lives easier. Here are some key inventions throughout history that have been patented:
- The internal combustion engine: Without this invention, vehicles wouldn't be possible. The first engine was patented in 1823 by Samuel Brown.
- The lightbulb: One of the most famous patents was awarded to Thomas Edison for the invention of the electric lightbulb in 1878. Edison achieved 1,093 patents in his lifetime.
- The television: The patent for the first television system was given to Philo Taylor Farnsworth in 1930.
- The computer: Steve Jobs and his colleagues at Apple patented his invention of the personal computer in 1983.
Some lesser-known patented ideas include:
- Chicken eye protectors: In 1908, Andrew Jackson Jr. patented eye protectors for chickens with the purpose of preventing them from pecking each others' eyes out.
- Steel kidneys: Nils Alwall patented the first steel kidneys in 1946 to help those suffering from kidney disease.
- The car coffee machine: This invention was patented in 1993 as a way to brew coffee right in your car—complete with a splash guard to prevent spillage while on the highway.
- Magnetic locker wallpaper: This was created in 2008 by a student who wanted to dress up her locker.
Patents vs. copyrights vs. trademarks
Knowing the difference between patents, copyrights, and trademarks can be confusing. Here's a breakdown of what each one protects and their differing characteristics: