What Is a Patent? Definition and Guide

What is a patent?

Patents are a right granted to an inventor that allows them to exclude all others from making, using, or selling their invention for 20 years.

In the US, the US Patent and Trademark Office reviews and approves patent applications, which provide protection against others stealing their idea. Once approved, the patent holder is then the sole person or company who is permitted to make, use, or sell the product, process, or solution to a technological problem that they have developed and registered. All others are prohibited, unless they are given permission.

Patent types

There are three major types of patents:

  1. Design patents – anyone who creates a new design for a product can apply for a design patent. Examples include beverage bottles (think of the shape of the Coca-Cola container) or furniture (such as the kneeling chair).
  2. Plant patents – botanists involved in grafting and creating new hybrid plant forms can apply for a plant patent. Examples include the Smooth Angel rose or drought-tolerant corn.
  3. Utility patents – 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” can apply for a utility patent. Examples include the little green drink stopper Starbucks gives out with its cups or the hoverboard type of skateboard.

The patent process

While many inventors may want to rush out and apply for patent protection as soon as they come up with a revolutionary new thingamajig, many experts suggest otherwise. Why? The patenting process can cost in the neighborhood of $25,000. So unless you’re sure your idea is commercially viable – meaning that you can make money from it – you may want to hold off filling out the paperwork.

More important than protecting your idea is developing your idea and confirming that it has any value. Will others pay to buy it or use it or to incorporate it into their product? Why spend money on protection for a product no one wants, is the bottom line.

First steps

So before you start work on that patent application:

  • Either fill out a disclosure document with the U.S. Patent office, which documents the date of conception, or detail your idea in an inventor’s notebook. That establishes the date on which you came up with the idea, in case anyone ever questions the timeline.
  • Check to be sure no one else has already patented your idea at the U.S. Patent Office.
  • Invest in a market feasibility study conducted by a company that specializes in them. The Wisconsin Innovation Service Center may be able to help point you in the right direction. Such studies look at start-up costs, market demand, safety, and production feasibility to determine if there is a market for your new idea. They cost a few hundred dollars, which is better than the thousands the patent will cost.
  • Once you are sure your idea is sellable, consider proceeding to patent it.

The patent process can take several years and your application can be rejected for a number of reasons, such as if it is too close to another existing patent.

See also: How to Register a Trademark and Patent a Business Name

What Is a Patent? FAQ

What is a patent in simple terms?

A patent is a legal document that gives the holder exclusive rights to an invention, product, or process for a set period of time. This means that anyone who wants to use the invention must get permission from the patent holder and may have to pay a fee.

What is patent example?

A patent is an example of intellectual property that grants the owner exclusive rights to a product, process, or invention for a specific duration of time. Examples of patents include the Wright Brothers’ patent for the airplane, Thomas Edison’s patent for the light bulb, and Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for the telephone.

What are the 3 types of patents?

  • Utility patents, which protect inventions that are new, useful, and non-obvious.
  • Design patents, which protect the ornamental design of a functional item.
  • Plant patents, which protect asexually reproduced plants.

What are the 4 types of patents?

  • Utility Patents: protect new and useful inventions, such as machines, processes, or compositions of matter.
  • Design Patents: protect the ornamental design of a functional item.
  • Plant Patents: protect asexually reproduced plants that are new varieties.
  • Provisional Patents: provide a means to establish an early priority date without the need for filing a formal patent application.