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What's a Patent?

A patent is a grant issued by the federal government that gives inventors the right "to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the U.S. or importing the invention into the U.S." Three types of patents are available:

Utility patents, which are granted to the inventor or discoverer of any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or compositions of matter, or any new and useful improvement;

Design patents, which are granted on any new, original and ornamental design for an article of manufacture; and

Plant patents, which are granted on any distinct and new variety of asexually reproduced plant.

Patent Facts

  • The cost for a patent depends on the type of patent and whether the applicant is an individual inventor, a nonprofit organization, a small business, or a corporation.

  • A U.S. patent protects your invention in this country only.
  • Design patents are granted for a term of 14 years from the date of the grant. Utility and plant patents are granted for a term that begins on the date of the grant and ends 20 years after the patent was first filed. A patent holder loses exclusive rights to the invention when the term expires or when periodic maintenance fees are not paid.
  • The Patent and Trademark Office cannot help inventors develop or market their inventions, but will publish a notice in the weekly Official Gazette that the patent is available for licensing or sale if the patent owner requests the notice and pays for it.


So You've Got a Great Idea?
Heads Up: Invention Promotion Firms
May Promise More Than They Can Deliver

What's Your Patent Ability?

Many invention promotion firms promise more than they can deliver. Try this True-False quiz to measure your patent-ability:

1. The fact that an idea is "patentable" has nothing to do with whether the idea has any potential for commercial success. TRUE FALSE
2. If I patent my idea, it does not necessarily mean the idea is protected. TRUE FALSE
3. Design patents protect the external or ornamental appearance of an idea; utility patents protect the function or utility concept of an idea. TRUE FALSE
4. Registering your idea with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Disclosure Document Program may help establish the date you conceived your idea, but it provides no patent protection. TRUE FALSE
5. Reputable invention promotion firms don’t charge high fees in advance their services. TRUE FALSE


  1. TRUE. Many ideas that have no market or profit potential are patentable. The reason: Many ideas can be patentable, but very few ideas have real commercial potential.

  2. TRUE. Unscrupulous invention promotion firms often apply for patents that provide such limited legal protection that it is easy for competitors to find ways to design around the patent. In many cases, these firms will charge you several thousand dollars to prepare the wrong type of patent application for your idea, or to apply for a patent for your idea that provides so little protection that it’s worthless.

  3. TRUE. Find out what kind of patent protection is right for your idea. For example, if the novelty of your idea lies in its function and not its appearance, a design patent alone won’t provide enough legal protection.

  4. TRUE. Some invention promotion scams claim that registering your idea with the Disclosure Document Program "protects" your idea. It does not. 

  5. TRUE. Reputable firms rely on screening ideas carefully. They make money from royalties they collect once they have licensed their client’s invention successfully.


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