If you have an original idea that you believe merits a patent, you will need to file an application for the appropriate patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. This is where you can apply to patent an idea for a utility, design, or plant patent. The United States Patent and Trademark Office falls under the U.S. Department of Commerce and its role is to grant patents to protect original inventions, as well as to register trademarks. It is responsible for preserving, classifying, and disseminating patent information, which helps our nation progress both technologically and industrially, as well as helps strengthen our economy.
People often confuse a patent with a trademark or copyright. A patent is a formal grant of a property right to the person who has an original invention. To be clear, this does not give you the exclusive right to manufacture, use, sell, or import your invention, rather it prohibits other people from manufacturing, using, selling, or importing your invention outside of the United States. A new patent is generally good for 20 years after the date the original patent application was filed with the USPTO. Once the USPTO issues you a patent, it is your responsibility to enforce it, without their help, as they have no jurisdiction over purported infringement or enforcing your patent.
People also tend to misunderstand the fact that a mere idea or suggestion cannot be patented. You must have a thorough description of the subject matter you are seeking to patent. The patent law also states with specificity that your invention must be “useful” in that it has a useful purpose, including its operativeness. Be advised that under the Atomic Energy Act, enacted in 1954, you are prohibited from patenting an invention that is to be used exclusively for utilizing atomic energy for an atomic weapon, or special nuclear material.
There are three types of patents:
- A utility patent is for the original invention or discovery of a machine, process, composition of matter, or product to be manufactured, or any new improvement to any of these that you believe will prove useful.
- A design patent is for the invention of any new, ornate design for an article to be manufactured, which is your original idea.
- A plant patent is for the invention or discovery of an unequivocally new type of plant. You must first have asexually reproduced your new plant before applying for the patent.
The application process for utility and design patents can be accomplished online at uspto.gov using the EFS-Web feature, which will assist you in submitting your PDF format application documents.
If you choose to mail your application, submit it to: Mail Stop PCT, Attn: Commissioner for Patents, P.O. Box 1450, Alexandria, Virginia 22313. Utility, design and plant patent applications can be mailed to this address. You should note, however, that as of November 15, 2011, if you file a regular, non-provisional utility application by mail (or hand-delivery), you will incur an additional filing fee of $400, termed the “non-electronic filing fee.” If you qualify for the status of small entity, this fee is reduced to $200. The absolute only way to avoid incurring this additional filing fee is to file your regular, non-provisional utility application via the EFS-Web feature.
If you need more information, contact the United States Patent and Trademark Office Customer Service Center at 1-800-786-9199.