What Is a Patent, and How to Use It

A patent is a valuable right that helps you protect your unique invention. But it can be a pricy and time-consuming proposition. Learn the patent basics and what's required for a patent before you invest a lot of time and money.

by Boni Peluso
updated December 29, 2021 ·  3min read

If you're an inventor or visionary, you've probably dreamed of patenting a creation.

In 2019, there were 669,434 applications for patents. However, 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 52% of applications are awarded a patent. The fact is, not every invention is patentable—or even worth patenting. However, understanding patent basics and what the USPTO is looking for can help you be in that 52% that gets approved.


What Is a Patent?

A patent is an exclusive right that allows you to keep all others from making, using, selling, distributing, importing, or selling your invention for a set period of time. This timeline can extend up to 20 years, depending on the type of patent.

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, who can sell, make, or use it from then on.

What's Considered Patentable?

Under U.S. Patent Law, any person can be awarded a patent if they invent or discover a new and useful:

  • Process. Like an assembly line process or online ordering system.
  • Machine. Any machine with parts, like a motorcycle.
  • Manufacture. Article of manufacture. An object that achieves a result, such as a tool
  • Composition of matter. Refers to chemical compositions. Imagine a new drug with a new chemical structure.

What's more, devising an improvement to a known invention can also be patented.

To be considered for a patent, your invention must also be:

  • Novel. New and different in some way from previous inventions.
  • Useful. Something that will provide a practical benefit and help accomplish something.
  • Non-obvious. Someone skilled in the invention's field would not consider it obvious.

What Are the Different Types of Patent?

Patent applications are often rejected because they aren't filed correctly. Here are the four different types of patent applications and how they differ:

  • Provisional. 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. What's more, 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. Expires after 12 months.
  • Utility. What most people imagine when they hear the word "patent." It's a highly meticulous and detailed technical document that details how to use a new machine, process, or system. Protects your invention for 20 years.
  • Design. Only protects the ornamental exterior of a product that has a practical use, like the unique design of a car. Protects your design for 15 years.
  • Plant. Can protect an inventor who has invented a unique new variety of plant. The catch here is that you must be able to asexually reproduce this plant, which means you can't use seeds. Instead, it would help if you achieved this new variety by rooting cuttings, budding, or grafting. New varieties of roses and apples are commonly developed this way and patented. Protects your new creation for 20 years.

How Do I Use a Patent?

A patent gives you absolute ownership over your invention and prevents others from profiting off your ingenious thinking and hard work. However, if your ultimate goal is to make money, you'll need to think about selling the patent to a competitor, licensing usage rights, or marketing your invention on your own.

Some Final Considerations Before You Go Down the Patent Path

The cost of filing for a patent can range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the complexity of your invention. So it's in your best interest to research how the marketplace might react to your invention before you file. If you uncover a real need and desire, you're on the right track. On the other hand, if the consensus is more indifferent, you might be better off not going through all the expense and energy of the patent process.

You'll also want to take into account the cost of manufacturing your invention. If it's more than the market will bear, it's back to the drawing board. But if it's cost-effective to produce, securing a patent could be invaluable.

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Boni Peluso

About the Author

Boni Peluso

Boni Peluso is an award-winning Creative Director and Content Strategist who has written extensively for the legal, heal… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.