As an entrepreneur, getting a patent to protect your innovation may be one of the most critical steps in your business plan. It can also be a lengthy, drawn-out process.

On average, it takes 2-1/2 years to complete the application process for a patent in the U.S., according to data in the infographic generated by online patent law service SmartUp. Mechanical engineering patents are likely to take longer, with average wait times clocking in at almost 33 months.

The landscape for entrepreneurs looking to secure a patent has changed substantially over the last year. In March of 2013, the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act changed patent law from a “first to invent” standard to a “first to file” rule. What that means is that it no longer matters who came up with an idea first – what matters is who filed the patent application for it first.

Related: How to Take Advantage of the ?First-to-File? Patent System

While this new patent landscape favors large corporations with deep pockets for litigation, the stakes are high. If you don’t file for a patent for your invention, you open yourself up to costly lawsuits.

Legislation to limit the ability of “patent trolls" – individuals or companies who own patents they don't use and sue inventors for infringing upon them – is moving through Congress right now. In October, the House of Representatives passed the Innovation Act, which aimed to stem the tide of frivolous patent lawsuits. Several parallel bills have been proposed in the Senate. Just this week, the non-profit policy advocacy organization, R Street, sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee urging them to take action.

Related: House Passes Anti-Patent Troll Bill, Sends to Senate

“The targets of these ‘patent trolls’ are not just big technology companies," the letter from R Street to the Senate said. "Rather, most troll lawsuits are brought against non-tech companies. These victims are often main street businesses such as restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, banks and others that don't invent or manufacture anything, but are seen as easy targets by patent trolls.”

Patent infringement cases can cost between $2 million and $5 million to carry out through the end, R Street estimates. And in many cases, that’s money that small businesses just don’t have.

Related: Entrepreneurs Want Patent Trolls Gone, But Current Legislation Is Sloppy

As patent-protection legislation makes its way through Washington, check out the infographic below from SmartUp to get a snapshot of the patent scene.

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A Primer on Patents: Who's Getting Them, Where and How Long It's Taking (Infographic)