Preparing a provisional patent application is relatively simple. Most people can do it in a day. In order to properly prepare a provisional patent application, there are three basic steps:
- Search for known inventions similar to yours, to make sure your idea is really new.
- Accurately describe how to make and use your invention.
- Complete and file the proper forms with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Below are the details for each of these steps. (To learn more about provisional patent applications in general, read Nolo's article Basics of Provisional Patent Applications.)
Find Previous Inventions
It is extremely important to make sure -- before you spend time and money filing a provisional patent application -- that your invention is really something new. Patent examiners will look at what is known as "prior art" -- previous inventions described in patents and publications. If an examiner finds that somebody built, patented, or documented the same or a similar invention before you, you won't get a patent. In order to anticipate these potential problems and to avoid wasting time and money, you should perform a basic prior art search before filing your application.
What is prior art? It includes all previous developments that are available to the public -- a tall order. The good news is that before filing a provisional application all you really need to do is look for prior patents, publications, or sales of similar inventions. You can do this preliminary searching on the Internet.
Later, before filing your regular patent application or selling your invention, you can do a more thorough search. This involves reviewing files at the USPTO or engineering libraries. You can do this yourself or hire a professional searcher.
Describe Your Invention
Your next task is to explain exactly what your invention is, what it does, and how to make it. Your description must be detailed enough so that anyone trained in the field is able to reproduce your invention. This may seem counterintuitive -- after all, you want to protect your idea, not spread it around -- but think of this as establishing exactly what it is you're protecting.
There are two ways describe your invention: with pictures and with words.
Drawing Your Invention
The term "drawing" refers to any illustration of your invention, whether it be a line drawing, flowchart, schematic, or photograph. Although there is no requirement that you include drawings with your provisional patent application, as a practical matter, it is usually necessary to do so in order to fulfill your goal of describing how to build and use your invention.
There are no rules for provisional patent application drawings, except that they must be understandable and fit in a regular file folder. You can use black and white or color photographs, computer created drawings, or handmade drawings. Obviously, your visual representation should conform to (and definitely should not contradict) your written explanation of how to make and use your invention.
Describing Your Invention
When describing your invention, you'll need to answer the following questions:
- What is the name of your invention?
- Who are the inventors?
- Was the invention created under a government contract?
- What does your invention accomplish?
- What drawing figures will you include?
- What are the parts or components?
- How do the components connect?
- How does the invention operate?
- Are there other ways to construct your invention?
- Can your invention be used in more than one way?
Your answers to the final five questions are especially important. They are the heart of the application because they describe in detail the structure of your invention, how it operates, and any alternative embodiments. This information will form the basis for your patent claims if you later file a regular patent application.
The description of your invention is often called the "specification" part of your provisional patent application. The PPA specification does not have to include all of the elements required for a regular patent application specification.
File Your Provisional Patent Application
There are two ways to file your provisional patent application: by mail or electronically. Each method requires that you include the following:
- basic information about who you are and what you're sending
- your specification
- your drawings, if any, and
- the filing fee ($65 if you qualify as a micro entity, $130 if you qualify as a small entity. (Here's an article that explains the differences.)
If you are ready to file for a PPA, you can use Nolo's Online Provisional Patent Application. It gives you plain-English advice as it takes you step by step through the PPA process. It completes the required government forms, files your application, and sends you the completed PPA with detailed instructions and four essential agreements. To learn more about this service, see Nolo's Online Provisional Patent Application FAQ.