Those mental wheels have been turning, and you’ve got yourself a fantastic idea for an invention! First, give yourself a pat on the back. How many people can call themselves inventors? You can now add yourself to that list. Now, it’s time to keep it moving. After all, in order for an invention to really take it off, it needs to move beyond the idea alone. You need to take some serious steps to make it happen. One of those steps—and it’s an important one!—is securing a patent, meaning that you’ll have exclusive rights to your idea. 

Keep reading for everything you need to know about how to patent an idea, including a patent definition and a step-by-step guide. 

What Is a Patent?

Let’s start with the basics. What is a patent, anyway? 

According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, “a patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.” Securing a patent on a particular invention means that no one else can make, use, or sell that invention. It’s a protective measure for anyone who wants to move forward with making their invention a reality. 

There are three types of patents:

  • Utility patents, which apply to a new technical or industrial process, machine, etc. 
  • Design patents, which are granted to new, original ornamental designs. 
  • Plant patents, which are granted anytime someone invents or discovers a method for reproducing a distinct variety of plant. 

So how long do patents last? Most patents are good for 20 years, starting on the day that the patent application is filed with the US Patent Office (more on that below). When those two decades are up, they’ll need to be renewed.

Who Needs a Patent?

A patent can’t and won’t be granted simply based on an idea. An inventor will need to present actual proof of their invention in order to get one. 

Once they have that proof on hand, almost any inventor needs a patent to protect themselves. Per the US Patent Office, “any person who invents or discovers a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent.” 

Inventors who fall into this category need a patent to ensure that others won’t attempt to claim or profit off of their invention. You don’t want anyone to try to copy your idea, do you? With a patent filed, you’ll have legal protection should someone else try to cash in on your hard work and brainpower. 

It’s pretty clear that getting a patent is a must for any serious inventor. But how do you get one?

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How to Patent an Idea 

How much does it cost for a patent? Well, it depends. 

There are patent attorneys out there who can do all of the legwork for you, but hiring one will be a serious investment. You might want to know how to patent an idea for free! There are fees associated with securing a patent, but filing it yourself is significantly less expensive than working with an attorney. 

Let’s dig into how to file a patent without a lawyer. You’ve got this! 

Step 1: Keep Records of Your Invention

The first step of the process actually begins before you even file the patent. 

As soon as you have that lightbulb moment and decide to pursue an idea or invention, you’ll want to keep detailed records of everything you’re doing. Describe and diagram every detail and development, from its original iteration through any modifications you might make. You should also keep records of every prototype you make. Keep all of these records dated and signed. 

Step 2: Be Sure It’s Worthwhile! 

Filing a patent isn’t a fast or free process, so it’s important to think seriously about whether or not you’re ready to commit to the remaining steps. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Have I come far enough to be able to present more than just an idea? Can I actually show how my invention works? 
  • Is my invention different in important ways from anything else out there? Is it actually new?
  • Is there potential to turn this invention into a viable business? After paying the hundreds or thousands of dollars that may be required to secure a patent, will I make my money back? 

Step 3: Conduct a Patent Search

A US patent search is absolutely necessary for anyone who wants to get a patent of their own. During this search, you’ll make extra sure that your invention is new and that you’re not stepping on another inventor’s toes. 

You can easily search patents on Google Patents or through the US Patent and Trademark Office. Start with a general keyword search. From there, you can review the search results and drill down based on the criteria offered in the search.

You’re bound to find inventions similar to yours in your thorough search process. Flag those and be prepared to explain in your application the ways in which your invention is different. The trick is to make sure that your patent is not exactly the same as an existing one. Assuming that’s true, you can move on with the rest of the steps. 

Step 4: File Your Application With the US Patent Office 

The resources required to help you file your application are available online. The application process will differ depending on your specific invention—and is quite detailed—but here are a few things you should be prepared to do when you apply. 

Prepare the Background

Here’s where you synthesize what you’ve learned about similar inventions already on the market with what makes your idea special and different. You should be able to describe the history of relevant technologies. You should also be clear about why there is a need and demand for your idea. 

Define Your Invention

This step is more or less what you would expect! You’ll need to break down the components of your invention, show how it builds on previous technologies or designs and how the invention actually works in its complete state. 

Prepare Drawings

You probably already have drawings from the invention/prototyping process. A successful patent drawing should show detailed renderings of not only your invention but also its component parts. 

Draft a Detailed Description

You can use your patent drawings as the basis for your detailed description, which should have enough detail that an engineer can understand exactly how the invention works. Just like the drawing, the description should offer information about the invention as a whole, as well as each of the component parts and how they work collectively and individually. 

Once the pieces of your application have come together, it’s time to file it. Be sure that you’re filing a full-blown application (also known as an RPA) and not a provisional patent application (PPA), which simply allows you to claim that you have a patent pending. While you can file a PPA temporarily, it can’t protect you in the long run. 

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Written by:

Alli Hoff Kosik