building blocks with words about patents and trademarks
Filing a patent is a lengthy experience but will pay off in the long run by protecting your business. — Getty Images/Warchi

You've done your research, tested your designs and created a working prototype of your invention. Now you're ready to present it to the public and turn it into a successful business.

Before you begin the process of launching your new product, you might want to consider filing for a patent first. As a piece of intellectual property, you'll want to protect your unique creation from any potential copycats.

Below, we'll explore the different patents available, as well as the steps for completing the filing process with the federal government.

What is a patent?

A patent is issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to grant a "property right" to the creator of an invention. This right excludes others from making, using, offering for sale or importing that person's invention or design within the United States.

The majority of entrepreneurs will file one of two types of patents:

  • Utility patents protect how an invention works, including its functionality and structure.
  • Design patents apply to the look of an item and protect the "ornamental design."

A new patent typically gives the inventor a 20-year window from the application date, where no one else can profit from manufacturing and distributing their invention or design.

[See more: How to Trademark Your Business Name.]

Who can file for a patent?

With the exception of officers and employees of the USPTO, anyone who invents or discovers something that qualifies for a patent may file for one.

To obtain a patent, one's invention or discovery must be "new and useful." U.S. patent law states that an invention can't be patented if it is already available to the public before the application is filed, or if another patent or patent application was filed describing the same claimed invention.

Whether you're filing a design or utility patent, the USPTO operates on the "first to file" principle. This means that whoever files a patent for a particular invention or design first will have the patent's protection rights.

To obtain a patent, one's invention or discovery must be "new and useful."

Patent filing process

The patent filing process can be a lengthy and expensive one, so if you're hoping to obtain a patent, you'll want to start as soon as possible. It may take 13 to 18 months to even receive your first notification from the USPTO, and the entire process — from filing to issuance — can take as long as 30 months.

According to the USPTO, here are the steps you should take before you file a patent application for your invention:

  • Research if your invention has already been patented.
  • Determine which patent is applicable to your invention.
  • Decide whether or not to file domestically and globally.
  • Decide whether to file the patent yourself or enlist an attorney to file on your behalf.

Once you've taken these steps, you can prepare to file your online application with the USPTO. You'll need to first apply for a customer number and digital certificate, as well as pay any applicable fees.

After you file the electronic application, the USPTO will then examine it and decide whether to grant it. You may need to submit reconsideration requests and appeals if your patent application is initially denied.

If your patent is approved, you will need to pay the USPTO's issue and publication fees, as well as maintenance fees at certain intervals after the patent is granted.

What other intellectual property protections exist?

Protecting your business's intellectual property is critical. However, it can be difficult to decide whether to file for a patent, trademark or copyright — or all of the above.

To help you, the U.S. Small Business Administration offers a course that outlines the filing steps, timelines and costs for each. You can also check out CO—'s guide to protecting your intellectual property.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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