A patent issues only as the result of filing a patent application. Most patent applications are utility patent applications; they are drawn to functional articles, machines, compositions, or processes. Utility patents do not cover ornamentation on functional items or the asexually-reproducing plants – those are the province of design and plant patents, respectively.
A patent application includes several parts. The claims are perhaps the most important part, as they define the scope of protection on the invention. The claims are a series of sentences that claim different aspects of the invention. Each claim can be a basis for infringement if someone copies your invention. The claims are read with the detailed description, which together form what is known as the application’s specification. This portion of the application details what the invention is, how it works, and how it is made. The detailed description supports the claims and must enable a person skilled the invention’s art to make and use the invention. The description is an important part of the application, because it helps to define the scope of the invention – if later amendments are required during prosecution of the patent application, the changes will be limited to what is disclosed in the specification. An application cannot be altered to include matter that is not disclosed in the specification. Drafting the claims and the detailed description is thus a very difficult, and a very serious, task requiring knowledge, experience, and foresight.
Drawings also make up the specification. The drawings support the claims and are used for reference in the detailed description. Sometimes schematics or engineering drawings can be used in a patent applications, but sometimes drawings must be created. Drawings may show sectional or exploded views, or they may illustrate steps in a method for assembling or using an invention.
Preparing a patent application is a process that must be approached carefully. It requires a complete explanation of the invention to the patent attorney and often times back-and-forth discussions between the inventor and the attorney to explore the range of patentable options. Once the attorney understands the invention, a patent search is often performed. The results of the search inform the inventor and attorney as to whether and how it is prudent to proceed with an application. Drawings are then made and the application is written. This also often requires communication between the inventor and attorney to ensure the disclosure is accurate.
Once the application is ready to be filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the attorney and inventor generally meet again to go over the application and sign the required government paperwork. Once the inventor has approved the application, it is ready to filed. After filing, the application process enters the prosecution phase. If the application is successfully prosecuted, it matures into a patent once the issuance fees are paid.
Patent protection lasts 20 years from the filing date of the application. Because prosecution can take quite while – generally at least one or two years – this means that the period of protection after the patent issues is less than 20 years, say 15-17 years. Once a patent application is filed, an applicant can claim “patent pending” in the invention, but this term has no legal weight by itself. It provides mostly a notice function to ward off would-be copycats.