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Legal Guide

Patents 101: What Entrepreneurs Should Know

If you’ve invented something new and useful, you should consider seeking patent protection for your new invention.

Startups and small businesses are always inventing things. And in certain situations, it makes sense to seek a patent on your invention to prevent others from using it.

(Confused about IP? See the differences between copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, and patents in this guide.)


What is a patent and what do they protect?

When you obtain patent rights, you are obtaining the right to prevent other people from making, using, selling, and offering to sell, the patented invention. When we say invention, we actually mean a pretty broad area that includes industrial or technical processes, machines, manufactured articles, compositions of matter, new and useful improvements of those products, as well as the processes for making those products.

To obtain a patent, your invention must be (1) useful; (2) new; and (3) not obvious.


What types of patents are there?

There are three types of patents:

  • Utility Patents are granted for useful processes, machines, composition of mater, etc.
  • Design Patents are granted for ornamental designs for products.
  • Plant Patents are granted for discoveries of new plants that can be asexually reproduced.

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How do you secure a patent?

To obtain patent rights, you must file an application with the USPTO. The application will include a description of the invention and the problems which it solves; drawings of the invention along with numbers that reference parts of the written description; and most importantly, the claims. The claims are the “meets and bounds” of your application, the exact things which you are seeking to protect under your patent. All of the inventors must sign the application and you must also indicate all prior art found in your research of other patents (i.e., other patents and inventions related to your patent).

Also keep in mind that the window to obtain a patent is somewhat short. Generally speaking, after you invent something (and especially if you disclose it publicly) you should speak to a patent attorney as soon as possible.

Once you obtain a patent, it will generally last for 20 years.


What constitutes patent infringement?

Patent infringement occurs when someone exercises one of the rights stated above (making, using, selling, or offering to sell, the patented invention) without authorization. As you’ve probably read in the news, patent infringement, or at least allegations of patent infringement, is on the rise because it is pretty easy to infringe someone’s patent rights. This means you should (a) avoid infringing the rights of others; and (b) monitor the market to enforce your patent rights if someone is infringing your patent rights.

(This article is general in nature and is not legal advice.)

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