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Patent, Trademark, and Copyright Primer for Students

Patents in Brief


A patent is a grant issued by the U.S. Government giving inventors the right to exclude all others from making, using, or selling their inventions within the United States, its territories, and possessions.

Three Kinds of Patents

There are three kinds of patents:
  1. utility patents, granted to the inventor or discoverer of any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof;
  2. plant patents, granted on any distinct and new variety of asexually reproduced plant;
  3. and, design patents, granted on any new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.

How Long Do Patents Last?

Utility and plant patents are granted for a term which begins on the date of the grant and ends twenty years from the date the patent application was first filed, subject to the payment of maintenance fees; design patents are granted for a term of fourten years from the date of the grant. Patents may be extended only by special act of Congress, except for some pharmaceutical patents whose terms may be extended to make up for time lost due to Government-required testing.

If you plan to file an application, you or your representative should make a search of patents previously granted to make sure that your idea has not already been patented.

The patent application process can be complex, and the Patent and Trademark Office cannot assist you in your preparation of application papers. You can use a patent attorney or agent registered to practice before the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.


The basic fee for filing an application for patent ranges from $160 to $770, depending on the type of patent application being filed and whether or not the applicant is entitled to status as a small entity (independent inventor, small business concern, or non-profit organization). Issue fees range from $220 to $1,290. Maintenance fees are due at 3.5, 7.5, and 11.5 years from the date the patent is granted. An individual inventor can expect to pay a minimum of $4,000 for a utility patent.

Applications are assigned to examiners who are experts in various fields of technology. The invention must be new, useful, and unobvious to those in that particular field of study. This procedure normally takes about 19 months.

Provisional Patent Application

A provisional application establishes a filing date but does not begin the examination process. It provides the inventor with a one-year period to further develop the invention, determine marketability, acquire funding or capital, or seek licensing agreements. To obtain a patent, the inventor must file a nonprovisional application within 12 months of the filing date of the provisional application.
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