How the patent process works
A patent gives the holder exclusive rights to ‘practice’ (make, use, sell) an invention. In exchange for these rights, the inventor must make a complete public disclosure of the invention. The patent application must therefore clearly state how to make and/or use the invention in terms that can be understood by someone familiar with the relevant technical field.
A utility patent application is the most common application type; others are design and plant patent applications. Utility applications include a written description of the invention, drawings, and claims. The claims specifically define the invention for which patent rights are being sought.
As a patent agent, I work very closely with the inventor(s) to draft claims, prepare drawings, write a thorough description, and prepare all required forms.
Steps in the patent process
The timeline above shows the general process for a utility application for a patentable invention; not all applications are allowed (result in a patent) and the process for each may vary from this example. After the application is filed, it goes into an examination queue at the USPTO. It may be 18-24 months or more until the examination is begun. After initial examination, the applicant will receive an Office Action detailing the status of the submitted claims (allowed, objected to, or rejected). Grounds for rejection include lack of novelty (references found which disclose the same invention before application was made) and obviousness (a reference could be modified, or more than one reference combined, in a way obvious to one skilled in the field to arrive at the invention). The applicant is given opportunity to respond to the Office Action. This process may be repeated several times until the application is allowed or given final rejection.
If the application is allowed, the patent will issue (after issue fee payment) and be published by the USPTO. As of the end of 2012, average times from application filing to issue were about 3.5 years. The patent term (period for which rights are in effect) begins on the day of issue and generally extends until 20 years from the date of filing the application. Maintenance fees are due three times over the life of the patent, and are required to keep the patent rights in effect.