If you develop a special invention or unique business process, it might be worth protecting it by applying for a patent. A patent, if granted, would give your small business exclusive rights to exclude others from using, producing, selling and importing your invention for a specific time frame. To help you get started, here are the answers to five of the top patent questions for small business owners.

1. What can you patent?

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) offers three categories of patents. You can apply for a utility patent for creating a new process, machine, composition of matter or article of manufacture (or any improvements thereof). You can also apply for a design patent for a new design for an existing article of manufacture. Finally, you can take out a plant patent for discovering and asexually reproducing a new kind of plant.

In order for your invention to be eligible for a patent, it must be novel, useful and not obvious. As you cannot patent ideas, you must develop your invention first before applying.

2. What are the steps involved in applying for a patent?

In order to apply for a patent, you must file a patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Your application needs to include a detailed explanation of what you are trying to patent. If necessary, you should include diagrams, as well.

Once you submit your application, your product will be considered "Patent Pending." This status helps ensure that others are given warning about the potential consequences of copying your product. The "Patent Pending" status may also help to market your product as being innovative. At this point, the Patent Office will review your application. Though this approval process can take years, you are protected by the Patent Pending status. If and when the Patent Office approves your patent, you will be granted exclusive rights to your invention for a specific number of years. "Generally, the term of a new patent is 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed in the United States or, in special cases, from the date an earlier related application was filed, subject to the payment of maintenance fees," according to the USPTO.

3. How much does a patent cost?

According to IPWatchdog, "Government filing fees of $730 are the minimum for small entities, which is how most independent inventors and small business[es] will be characterized." However, applying for a more complicated invention will be more expensive because it involves submitting more materials, such as diagrams. This process will also be more expensive if you hire an attorney to offer legal guidance.

4. What is a provisional patent?

If you need more time to prepare your patent, you could file a provisional patent application first. This application process is less expensive and less complicated. However, it's important to note that your provisional patent application is only good for one year. At that point, you must file a nonprovisional patent application in order to protect your invention.

5. How do you enforce your patent?

It's up to you to monitor whether other people or businesses are using your invention without your permission. If this occurs, you can negotiate a licensing fee from the offender and may file an action with the appropriate court for patent infringement. While you may be successful in getting a court to agree with you, these actions can be costly, so it is advisable to check with experienced patent counsel to determine the best course of action applicable to your circumstances. You should know, however, that the USPTO does not monitor such activities on your behalf.

You worked hard to come up with your great invention, so make sure to enjoy the benefits. By understanding the patent application process and what you need to do to protect your invention, you can start to figure out the best way to protect yourself and your company.

Now that your top patent questions have been answered, check out our guide to protecting your intellectual property to learn more about patents, copyrights and trademarks.

Tags: Intellectual Property