How to File a U.S. Patent for Free

By Lee Hall, J.D.

How to File a U.S. Patent for Free

By Lee Hall, J.D.

The holder of a patent claims exclusive ownership of a mechanical process or invention, or an improvement upon one. Patenting is expensive. To avoid beginning the application process for concepts that already exist—and to avoid paying unnecessarily—applicants should first carry out thorough searches of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database.

Man smiling while holding up robot to show female coworkers

Should you confirm that your concept is unique, you might apply for one of several kinds of patents, including:

  • a plant patent, relevant to those working in the botanical sphere
  • a design patent, to protect the unique look of your innovative work
  • a utility patent (the most common type), to protect mechanical inventions and processes

The USPTO provides forms for each type. There is also the provisional utility patent. Because it offers protection at a much lower cost than patenting, we cover the provisional patent application in more detail below.

Fee Waivers

Is it possible to obtain a patent for free? Only under limited circumstances, which are laid out in Section 708.01, List of Special Cases, in the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure (MPEP). If your concept fits, you will need to prepare a statement of facts to justify special consideration for a fee waiver.

The commissioner may advance a petition in light of an applicant's age or ill health, or waive filing fees if the invention materially:

  • enhances environmental protection
  • helps to develop or conserve energy
  • contributes to counterterrorism

If you believe you qualify for special consideration for a waiver of application and patent fees, you may apply for a patent using a Petition to Make Special by mail or through the USPTO website.

If not, you can still take certain steps to delay your cash outlay and otherwise save hundreds of dollars in the patent arena.

Filing a Provisional Application

A provisional patent application consists of a cover sheet and a written description, including detailed images displaying the invention's makeup and mechanics. Not only can filing provisionally save money, it is also a commercially sensible way to proceed, as marketing a product or improvement usually requires discussing it with others. Preliminary protection, therefore, makes sense.

An inventor who submits the application for a provisional patent application has, from that date on, the legal prerogative to call the concept "patent pending." Yet the provisional patent application is a placeholder—not a bona fide patent. Note that it does not convert into a patent without further action by the applicant, which must be taken within the following year. The benefit of the provisional patent application is the cost-effective opportunity to spend a year looking into the concept's marketability while enjoying legal protection.

To keep the broadest range of options as you respond to others' reviews of your prototype, be accurate yet broad with the description in your application. This way, a work in progress will better match the description submitted even if you make tweaks—either to the design or in the way it operates. You must describe and explain both in detail, but you can avoid restrictive terms that hem you in.

The Value of Trademark

Finally, don't overlook the value of a trademark for your concept. Consider whether a trademark will enhance the value and marketability of your innovation.

Also consider the trademark's protective effect. Connecting a trademarked name with your concept can prevent competitors or copycats from claiming the idea before you are prepared to obtain a patent.

Registration of a trademark also occurs through the USPTO. Filing for trademark protection is a relatively quick process, normally taking a little more than one year.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.