Congratulations -- you came up with a great idea or designed a new invention! Now you may be wondering, “should I file for a patent?”
Filing for a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is a great way to guard all your hard work, but there are rules to filing for this creative protection -- in short, not everything can be patented.
A patent is a protection for your intellectual property, that is, the design or product you created. Patents keep others from replicating your work and selling it as their own, and also give you perks like the exclusive right to make and sell your product. Patents can last up to 20 years and grant you the ability to protect your invention through the legal system -- which is why there are restrictions on what can and can’t be patented.
Characteristics of patentable inventions
Successfully filing a patent requires you to meet a handful of eligibility standards, including:
- Your invention is useful. This means that the item you’re attempting to patent has to have some kind of use – meaning it has a practical application or it’s a specific process to creating, fixing or using something. The best way to pass the usefulness test is to explain what your created item can do.
- Your invention is explainable. A heavy component of the patent application process is being able to show what exactly your product does, how it works and how it was created. Many patent applications also require diagrams and schematics to help further show and explain your patent. If you can’t fully explain how your invention works or should be used, it may be time to do additional research to meet this requirement.
- Your invention has to be legal. It almost goes without saying, but any product you design and attempt to have patented has to be for legal use. Inventions that break laws or support illegal activity just aren’t going to be patented. Plus, attempting to patent an item that breaks the law just might not be wise.
- Your invention has to be significantly different from previous versions. In many cases, people are granted patents for items that already exist, with the caveat that they have significant changes. In the eyes of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, these improvements essentially create a new product, so long as the features increase the use of a current item, or solve a problem that an already existing product has or creates.
Things You Can’t Patent
Sometimes, people have great ideas and products that just can’t be patented. In case you’re wondering what explicitly can’t be patented, consider these guidelines:
- You can’t patent naturally occurring things. If you can find your idea in nature, you likely can’t patent it. For example, it’s not possible to patent raw materials like lumber, rocks or produce. Theories in scientific research fall into this category as well -- meaning you can’t patent scientific work, partially because it’s solely an idea, and also because there’s no physical product.
- You can’t patent art and media. Patents are for products and items with use that can be manufactured and sold. While art and media do have their humanitarian uses, they don’t qualify for patents. Although, if you’re interested in protecting artistic works you’ve created, consider copyrighting your materials -- the legal process of protecting against plagiarism and theft for written materials.
- You can’t patent ideas. Many people create standout ideas for useful products, but don’t continue on the road to designing and inventing them. Because patents are for actual items or processes, you can’t patent an idea or an improvement suggestion for a product. To seek protection from competitors or duplicators, you’ll need to actually create the item and explain how it works.
- You can’t patent something that already exists. It may seem like common sense, but it’s important to remember that you can’t patent an invention that’s already been created and patented. For this reason, it’s important to seek out similar items through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to ensure they haven’t already been designed and patented by someone else.
Patents are a great way to protect your innovations, but there’s a lot of time and effort that goes into obtaining official patent status. Understanding what you can patent before you file paperwork is a great way to ensure you’re on the right track to sharing your invention with the world.