Many of the following resources are found on the government's website. However, it should be noted that providing such resources from the government does not infer in any degree that the U.S. Government authorizes, endorses, or approves of the material on the IP Clinic website. Additionally, the content provided from the USPTO gets updated regularly. As such, it is recommended to also verify such content via uspto.gov directly (the links to the content are also provided).

What is a Patent and What rights does a Patent Give Me?

A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Generally, the term of a new patent is 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed in the United States or, in special cases, from the date an earlier related application was filed, subject to the payment of maintenance fees. U.S. patent grants are effective only within the United States, U.S. territories, and U.S. possessions. Under certain circumstances, patent term extensions or adjustments may be available.

The right conferred by the patent grant is, in the language of the statute and of the grant itself, “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States. What is granted is not the right to make, use, offer for sale, sell or import, but the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention. Once a patent is issued, the patentee must enforce the patent without aid of the USPTO.

See http://www.uspto.gov/patents-getting-started/general-information-concerning-patents#heading-10

What is an Invention?

An invention is defined by the USPTO to be “any art or process (way of doing or making things), machine, manufacture, design, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, or any variety of plant, which is or may be patentable under the patent laws of the United States.”

An inventor is further defined to be “one who contributes to the conception of an invention. The patent law of the United States of America requires that the applicant in a patent application must be the inventor.”

See http://www.uspto.gov/main/glossary/#i

What are the Different Types of Patents?

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issues several different types of patent documents offering different kinds of protection and covering different types of subject matter.

    Patents generally fall into the following main categories:

  • Utility Patent- Issued for the invention of a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or a new and useful improvement thereof, it generally permits its owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention for a period of up to twenty years from the date of patent application filing, subject to the payment of maintenance fees. Approximately 90% of the patent documents issued by the USPTO in recent years have been utility patents, also referred to as "patents for invention".
  • Design Patent- Issued for a new, original, and ornamental design embodied in or applied to an article of manufacture, it permits its owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the design for a period of fourteen years from the date of patent grant. Design patents are not subject to the payment of maintenance fees.
  • Plant Patent- Issued for a new and distinct, invented or discovered asexually reproduced plant including cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly found seedlings, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state, it permits its owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the plant for a period of up to twenty years from the date of patent application filing. Plant patents are not subject to the payment of maintenance fees.
  • Reissue Patent- Issued to correct an error in an already issued utility, design, or plant patent, it does not affect the period of protection offered by the original patent. However, the scope of patent protection can change as a result of the reissue patent.

See http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/ac/ido/oeip/taf/patdesc.htm

Who May Apply For A Patent?

According to the law, the inventor, or a person to whom the inventor has assigned or is under an obligation to assign the invention, may apply for a patent, with certain exceptions. If the inventor is deceased, the application may be made by legal representatives, that is, the administrator or executor of the estate. If the inventor is legally incapacitated, the application for patent may be made by a legal representative (e.g., guardian). If an inventor refuses to apply for a patent or cannot be found, a joint inventor may apply on behalf of the non-signing inventor.

If two or more persons make an invention jointly, they apply for a patent as joint inventors. A person who makes only a financial contribution is not a joint inventor and cannot be joined in the application as an inventor. It is possible to correct an innocent mistake in erroneously omitting an inventor or in erroneously naming a person as an inventor.

If two or more persons make an invention jointly, they apply for a patent as joint inventors. A person who makes only a financial contribution is not a joint inventor and cannot be joined in the application as an inventor. It is possible to correct an innocent mistake in erroneously omitting an inventor or in erroneously naming a person as an inventor.

See http://www.uspto.gov/patents-getting-started/general-information-concerning-patents#heading-10

How Much Does it Cost to File?

A patent application is subject to the payment of a basic fee and additional fees that include a search fee, an examination fee, and issue fee. Consult the USPTO website for the current fees.

To give you a sense of cost, however, filing fees would be, at a minimum, $400 (micro entity), $730 (small entity), and $1600 (large entity).

If the owner of the invention is a small entity, (an independent inventor, a small business concern or a nonprofit organization), most fees are reduced by half if small entity status is claimed (furthe reductions are possible if you qualify as a micro entity status). Applicants claiming small entity status should make an investigation as to whether small entity status or micro entity status is appropriate before claiming such status.

Most of the fees are subject to change in October of each year.

See http://www.uspto.gov/patents-getting-started/general-information-concerning-patents#heading-16

How is a Patent Different from a Trademark or Copyright?

A patent is “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention in the United States or ‘importing’ the invention into the United States.”

A trademark on the other hand is “a word, name, symbol, or device that is used in trade with goods to indicate the source of the goods and to distinguish them from the goods of others.”

Copyright is defined as “a form of protection provided to the authors of "original works of authorship" including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished.”

Thus, a patent protects the manufacturing and sale of an invention, trademark protects a symbol or name, and copyright protects “works of authorship”.

See http://www.uspto.gov/patents-getting-started/general-information-concerning-patents

Should I Keep my Invention a Secret or Disclose it in a Patent?

If you want your invention to be protected such that other entities cannot produce, sell, or otherwise use the invention without permission then you should consider disclosing it via a patent application. You cannot protect your invention or stop someone else from filing for a patent unless you disclose your invention and file for a patent.

The only exception to this would be a trade secret, defined as “information and can include a formula, pattern, compilation, program, device, method, technique or process.” But a trade secret does not protect the information from discovery and use by another. It only protects from unauthorized disclosure.

Trade secret protection is an alternative to patent protection. Patents require the inventor to provide a detailed and enabling disclosure about the invention in exchange for the right to exclude others from practising the invention for a limited period of time. Patents do expire, and when that happens the information contained within is no longer protected. However, unlike trade secrets, patents protect against independent discovery. Patent protection also eliminates the need to maintain secrecy. While most anything can be kept secret, there are limitations on what can be protected by a patent. If a given invention is eligible for either patent or trade secret protection, then the decision on how to protect that invention depends on business considerations and weighing of the relative benefits of each type of intellectual property.

See http://www.uspto.gov/patents-getting-started/international-protection/office-policy-and-external-affairs-patent-trade