Frequently Asked Questions

What is a patent?

A patent is a right that the government grants to an inventor permitting the inventor to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention; within the U.S., its territories and possessions. Patents may be obtained on any new, useful process, machine, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.

What types of inventions can be patented?
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issues three different kinds of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. Any invention must be novel, non-obvious and useful to be patentable.

What is utility?
Utility means that an invention must be useful in order to be patentable. Whether the invention is useful in a trivial sense is irrelevant as long as it is useful in some manner.

What is novelty?
An invention is novel if it is different from all previous inventions. This does not mean that it must produce different results, but that it is in some way unique from those inventions that came before it.

When is an invention non-obvious?
An invention is non-obvious when it is surprising and significant to a person who is skilled in the art and understands the field of expertise in which the invention is at home.

Who owns a patent?
Usually an inventor owns the patent to his inventions. However, there are many exceptions. A corporation may own the patent to an invention created by an employee. Especially, employees who are hired to invent; are usually required to assign the rights in their inventions to the employer. Similarly, an educational institution may own the patent to an invention created by one of its employees, or have a policy that employee-inventors must assign ownership to the institution. Also, patents are transferable and assignable, so a patent holder may decide to sell his patent.

When does the protection start? How long does it last?
The U.S. government grants patents for a term of 20 years from the filing date of the patent application (14 years from issue date for design patents). Congress may extend the term only in special circumstances. After the term expires, the exclusive right to the invention is lost.

What is the scope of protection?
A patent gives the right to exclude others from making, selling, and using the patented invention without the patent owners permission. The degree to which the invention is new and different sets a basic limit on the breadth of available protection. How the patent application is written also sets limits on protection. What is protected by a patent is what is described in the patents claims.

What is reverse engineering?
Reverse engineering is the process of taking apart an object or process to understand how it works and duplicate it. Reverse engineering is no defense against a claim of patent infringement. There is no fair use equivalent in patent law.

How to get a patent?
The first step in the decision to obtain patent protection should be a patent search, to determine whether the invention is indeed new and novel and whether seeking protection is worthwhile. The next step is to prepare the patent application according to the requirements set out in the respective forms on the USPTO website. The application can then be filed online or on by mail. The filing date is the date that determines when protection begins. Once the application is filed, if the USPTO determines that the invention meets the requirements for patentability, the USPTO will allow the application and eventually issue the patent. If the application does not satisfy formal requirements or if the invention is rejected, the USPTO will not allow the application and the applicant is given the opportunity to correct the problems in the application and submit a reply to the USPTO.

When must a patent application be filed?
A patent application must be filed no later than one year after the invention was first offered for sale, used in public, or publicized.

What is enablement?
Enablement means that the claims of a patent must be drafted in such a way that a person of ordinary skill in the art (someone who understands the field in which the invention is at home) would be able to understand and recreate the invention based on the patent itself.

Can a patent be transferred or assigned?
Yes, a patent may be transferred or assigned. However, depending on the individual situation, it may be more beneficial to license the patented invention instead of selling the entire patent.

Can software qualify for patent protection?
Yes, software may qualify for patent protection. Software may qualify for a patent if the patent application produces a useful, concrete, and tangible result.

Is it possible to patent life-forms?
Forms of life, from bacteria to cows that are genetically altered to have new and useful characteristics or behaviors, may qualify for utility patents. DNA sequences and the methods used to accomplish the sequencing may also be patentable.

What does "patent pending" mean?
A patent is pending when a patent application has been filed, but the USPTO has not made a final decision as to whether a patent will issue. Patents are not actually enforceable until the application has been examined and allowed and a patent actually issues. However, a patent pending marking can discourage competition by putting would-be competitors on notice that a patent may issue shortly, precluding competitors from the marketplace.