Patents were so important to the founding fathers that Article I, Section II of the Constitution includes the patent and copyright clause. This clause gives Congress the power to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” This clause enabled Congress to found the U.S Patent and Trademark Office, also known as the PTO. Once a patent is granted, the patent owner may enforce it by filing a patent infringement action against anyone who makes, uses, or sells the invention without his permission.
If you are trying to obtain a patent, you must first have an invention. While the law does not specifically define “invention,” 35 USC 102 and 103 states that to be patentable, an invention must be must be novel and unobvious. “Novel” means that the invention must be unknown. A good example of something that was once unknown and not obvious is the combination of a telephone and a camera. Individually, cameras and phones were both known, but combination of them was unknown and not obvious. The PTO issues several types of patents. A utility patent is the most common; it is issued for the invention of a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or an improvement of an existing idea. A design patent is issued for a new, original, and ornamental design for a manufactured device.
To obtain a patent, you must first prepare a patent application. The patent application completely discloses everything that a person who is trained in the relevant field would need to know to make and use the invention. You can file this application with the PTO electronically, using EFS-web. EFS stands for electronic filing system; you can find the link on the PTO's website. It's a secure computer program provided by the government to receive your patent application. You will have to pay a fee to file your application.
Once your patent application is received, it is assigned to a patent examiner. The patent examiner is a professional who is trained both in the relevant field and in patent law. He will review your application in light of other similar inventions. These other similar inventions are called prior art. The examiner may accept, reject, or object to your patent application. If the examiner objects, he'll send you an office action that details his objections. You must address every one of his objections satisfactorily before your patent application can be accepted.
Drafting a patent application requires both technical and legal expertise. While inventors are typically very technically conversant about the nature of their inventions, they are not necessarily capable of defining the invention in the broadest legal terms possible. Consulting an attorney or an online legal service while drafting the patent application may result in a patent that is more likely to protect your legal interest in the invention.