Unlike copyrights and trademarks, patents can be used to protect inventions (ideas). Protecting your inventions with patents can significantly increase the value of your company. Although patents rarely provide 100% protection against another company entering your space, having a patent portfolio provides you with considerable leverage in avoiding some other company blocking your access to your target market. (And sometimes they even dissuade potential competitors.)
What is a Patent?
A patent for an invention in the U.S. 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 “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.
There are three types of patents:
1) Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof;
2) Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture; and
3) Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.
In general, an application for a patent must be filed, and a patent shall be granted and enforced, in each country in which you seek patent protection for your invention, in accordance with the law of that country. In some regions, a regional patent office, for example, the European Patent Office (EPO) and the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO), accepts regional patent applications, or grants patents, which have the same effect as applications filed, or patents granted, in the member States of that region.
Further, any resident or national of a Contracting State of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) may file an international application under the PCT. A single international patent application has the same effect as national applications filed in each designated Contracting State of the PCT. However, under the PCT system, in order to obtain patent protection in the designated States, a patent shall be granted by each designated State to the claimed invention contained in the international application.
A full patent application can be expensive ($10K to $20K or more). However, you can file a “Provisional application” which basically documents your invention and documents the date of invention. You then have one year to file a full patent application. With a provisional application filed, you can use the “patent pending” term. And you have a year to raise enough money to afford a full application.
However, your provisional application is only useful if the description of your invention is sufficiently complete and clear. So you’ll still need someone who knows what they are doing to write it. If you have a team member or advisor who has written patents before, that’s one way to go. Otherwise, getting a patent attorney involved can really be worth the investment.