By Richard Stim, Attorney
You have a great idea for an invention or product. Do you need to hire a lawyer to apply for a patent? In most cases, the answer is "no." You can do it yourself, and save thousands of dollars on attorneys' fees.
Thousands of inventors have successfully navigated the patent system on their own. In fact, federal law requires patent examiners at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to help individual inventors who apply for patents without a lawyer's help.
To obtain a patent, you need to:
These aren't "legal" skills, and learning them is no different than learning any other skill, whether it's auto repair, deck installation or gourmet cooking. Some steps are easy, others are more difficult. But by taking the process one step at a time, you can acquire a patent.
Prepare and file a provisional patent application online, with Nolo’s easy-to-use Online Provisional Patent Application.
Here's a quick look at the basic steps you need to take before filing a patent application. Nothing about the process requires a lawyer -- there's no court, no judge, no "legal" research. The USPTO has specific rules, but you can follow them just as you would a recipe in a cookbook.
Record every step of the invention process in a notebook. Describe and diagram every aspect and every modification of the invention, including how you came up with the idea for it. Depending on the invention, you may also want to build and test a prototype. Document all of these efforts. Sign and date each entry and have two reliable witnesses sign as well.
You cannot get a patent just on an idea. You must show how your invention works and your invention must be new. This means it must be different in some important way from all previous inventions. It also cannot be for sale or be known about before you apply for a patent. To learn more, see Qualifying for a Patent FAQ.
Applying for a patent is a business decision. Even without a patent attorney or the use of professionally prepared patent drawings, it costs approximately $1,500 in fees to file and obtain a patent from the USPTO. Before you spend the time and money to file a patent application, you need to research the market you hope to enter and decide whether it's worth the outlay of funds.
To make sure your invention is new, you need to search all the earlier developments in your field. This involves searching U.S. (and sometimes foreign) patents, as well as other publications like scientific and technical journals, to find related inventions.
Although patent searching is time consuming, it can be mastered with practice. Even if you decide to hire a professional later on in the process, you know the most about your invention, so you are the best person to start the search.
You can start your research on the Internet, but you may also want to visit a Patent and Trademark Depository Library, where you can search earlier patents and get help from a librarian. For more information, see Patent Searching Online.
When you search, you will certainly find other inventions that are similar to yours. In your application, you should show how your invention improves upon or is different from these earlier developments.
When you file with the USPTO, you can either file a full-blown regular patent application (RPA) or a provisional patent application (PPA).
Provisional patent application (PPA): A PPA is not an actual application for the patent itself. Filing a PPA simply allows you to claim patent pending status for the invention and involves only a small fraction of the work and cost of a regular patent application.
All that is required to file a PPA is a fee ($65 for micro-entities, $130 for small entities and $260 for large companies), a detailed description of the invention, telling how to make and use it, and an informal drawing. Then, you must file an RPA within a year of filing the PPA. If you don't, you can no longer claim the PPA filing date. To learn more about why you might want to file a PPA, see the article Basics of Provisional Patent Applications.
Nolo's Online Provisional Patent Application service gives you plain-English advice as we take you through the steps to create your own PPA. We complete the required government forms, file your application, and then send you the completed PPA, detailed instructions, and four essential agreements. To learn more about this service, see Nolo's Online Provisional Patent Application FAQ.
Regular patent application (RPA): Filing an RPA -- a regular patent application -- starts the examination process at the USPTO that's necessary for getting the actual patent. To learn what's involved in preparing a regular application, see Understanding Patent Applications.
For help preparing a regular patent application yourself, check out Patent It Yourself, by David Pressman (Nolo).