A patent protects an inventor's right to produce the product he invented, preventing others from selling or using the product. Federal law provides patents as a way to encourage innovation by giving inventors ownership over their own ideas. Since patents can only be granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, you must apply through that office before you can receive your patent.
Determine Whether Your Idea Is Eligible
Before you go through the time and expense of filing a patent, you might want to make sure your idea is eligible for a patent in the first place. Federal law only allows patents for certain categories of inventions: utility, design or plant. Utility patents are for inventions or discoveries of processes, machines, manufactured items or useful improvements of any other patentable item. Design patents are for ornamental designs of manufactured objects, and plant patents are for new varieties of plants. If your idea does not fall into one of the patentable categories, the patent office cannot give you a patent.
Search Existing Patents
You may also wish to perform a patent search before filing your own patent application. Patent searches are not required, but they can save you time and money if it turns out that your idea has already been patented. During a patent search, a patent researcher combs the public patent records, including granted patents and some patent applications, to find information that may be relevant to your idea's patentability. Patent searches do not guarantee that your idea will be patentable, and some records are not available for a patent search.
File a Patent Application
The next step in the process is filing a patent application. The patent office offers electronic filing, called EFS-Web, for most patent applications. Your application must include details of your idea, and you can prepare the application yourself or with the assistance of an attorney or legal services provider. Once your application is filed, your idea officially has a "patent pending" status. This status, however, does not mean your patent will be granted.
File Responses and Pay Fees
The patent office will perform its own patent search once you file your patent application, sending you a copy of their own opinion on your idea's patentability. It is not uncommon for the patent office to deny an application initially, but you can file a response to the denial that lists reasons your idea should be given a patent. If the patent office decides your application should be granted, it sends a Notice of Allowance. Then, you must pay a fee before receiving your patent, typically sent within a few months after you pay your fee.