Here’s how to get a U.S. patent on your idea or invention –without a lawyer.
You have a great idea for an invention or product. Do you need to hire a lawyer to apply for a patent? In most cases, the answer is “no.” You can do it yourself, and save thousands of dollars on attorneys’ fees.
Filing a Patent Without an Attorney
Thousands of inventors have successfully navigated the patent system on their own. In fact, federal law requires patent examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to help individual inventors who apply for patents without a lawyer’s help.
To obtain a patent, you need to:
* make sure your invention qualifies for a patent, and
* be able to describe all aspects of your invention.
These aren’t “legal” skills, and learning them is no different than learning any other skill, whether it’s auto repair, deck installation or gourmet cooking. Some steps are easy, others are more difficult. But by taking the process one step at a time, you can acquire a patent.
Steps to Filing a Patent Application
Here’s a quick look at the basic steps you need to take before filing a patent application. Nothing about the process requires a lawyer — there’s no court, no judge, no “legal” research. The USPTO has specific rules, but you can follow them just as you would a recipe in a cookbook.
1. Keep a Careful Record of Your Invention
Record every step of the invention process in a notebook. Describe and diagram every aspect and every modification of the invention, including how you came up with the idea for it. Depending on the invention, you may also need to build and test a prototype. Document all of these efforts. Sign and date each entry and have two reliable witnesses sign as well.
2. Make Sure Your Invention Qualifies for Patent Protection
You cannot get a patent just on an idea. You must show how your invention works and your invention must be new. This means it must be different in some important way from all previous inventions. It also cannot be for sale or be known about for more than a year before you apply for a patent.
What types of inventions can be patented?
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issues three different kinds of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents.
To qualify for a utility patent — by far the most common type of patent — an invention must be:
* a process or method for producing a useful, concrete, and tangible result (such as a genetic engineering procedure, an investment strategy, computer software, or a process for conducting e-commerce on the Internet)
* a machine (usually something with moving parts or circuitry, such as a cigarette lighter, a sewage treatment system, a laser, or a photocopier)
* an article of manufacture (such as an eraser, a tire, a transistor, or a hand tool)
* a composition of matter (such as a chemical composition, a drug, a soap, or a genetically altered lifeform), or
* an improvement of an invention that fits within one of the first four categories.
If an invention fits into one of the categories described above, it is known as “statutory subject matter” and has passed the first test in qualifying for a patent. But an inventor’s creation must overcome several additional hurdles before the USPTO will issue a patent. The invention must also:
* have some usefulness (utility), no matter how trivial
* be novel (that is, it must be different from all previous inventions in some important way)
* be nonobvious (a surprising and significant development) to somebody who understands the technical field of the invention.
For design patents, the law requires that the design be novel, nonobvious, and nonfunctional. For example, a new shape for a car fender, a bottle, or a flashlight that doesn’t improve its functionality would qualify.
Finally, plants may qualify for a patent if they are both novel and nonobvious. Plant patents are issued less frequently than any other type of patent.
The following items are just some of the things that might qualify for patent protection:
chemical formulas or processes
clothing accessories and designs
computer hardware and peripherals
fabrics and fabric designs
games (board, box, and instructions)
laser light shows
magic tricks or techniques
medical accessories and devices
sporting goods (designs and equipment)
3. Assess the Commercial Potential of Your Invention
Applying for a patent is a business decision. Even without a patent attorney or the use of professionally prepared patent drawings, it costs approximately $1,500 in fees to file and obtain a patent from the USPTO. Before you spend the time and money to file a patent application, you need to research the market you hope to enter and decide whether it’s worth the outlay of funds.
4. Do a Thorough Patent Search
To make sure your invention is new, you need to search all the earlier developments in your field. This involves searching U.S. (and sometimes foreign) patents, as well as other publications like scientific and technical journals, to find related inventions.
Although patent searching is time consuming, it can be mastered with practice. Even if you decide to hire a professional later on in the process, you know the most about your invention, so you are the best person to start the search.
You can start your research on the Internet, but you may also want to visit a Patent and Trademark Depository Library, where you can search earlier patents and get help from a librarian.
5. Prepare and File an Application With the USPTO
When you file with the USPTO, you can either file a full-blown regular patent application (RPA) or a provisional patent application (PPA).
Provisional patent application (PPA): A PPA is not an actual application for the patent itself. Filing a PPA simply allows you to claim patent pending status for the invention and involves only a small fraction of the work and cost of a regular patent application.
All that is required to file a PPA is a fee of $110 ($220 for large companies), a detailed description of the invention, telling how to make and use it, and an informal drawing. Then, you must file an RPA within a year of filing the PPA. If you don’t, you can no longer claim the PPA filing date.