How Patents Work

What a Patent Lawyer Does

Once you have your brilliant idea, and you've found a good lawyer, things get a little more complicated and a lot more expensive. The first thing Suzy wants to do is review your teleportation idea in minute detail. To proceed efficiently through the patent process, she needs to understand the machine inside and out (this is why patent lawyers need a good technical background in addition to a law degree).

Once she is familiar with your invention, Suzy begins a thorough patent search of her own to uncover all of the related ideas that have already been patented. At this point, Suzy may uncover a patent (or patent application) that you had not found, and she may tell you that your machine cannot be patented because it is too similar to the earlier invention. Or she may suggest that you focus in on one particular aspect of the invention -- perhaps the device that assembles the atoms in the correct order. This initial search and consultation can cost thousands of dollars, but may be worth the money if it saves you from trying to patent an unpatentable idea (which would probably end up costing a lot more).

The Application

If Suzy believes you should proceed, she starts putting the patent application together. The application is made up of a number of different parts. It must include:

  • A list and description of any "prior art," earlier inventions that are relevant to your invention. This would include the quantum teleporter, the body scanner and anything else that Suzy came up with.
  • A brief summary outlining the new invention
  • A description of the "preferred embodiment" of the invention. This is a detailed account of how your idea will actually be put into practice. Suzy would have an artist create precise drawings of the machine, explaining point by point how the machine can transport somebody across the room.
  • One or more "claims." Claims are the most important element of the application, as they are the actual legal description of your invention. Down the road, if you need to take someone to court for infringing on your idea, the strength of your suit will largely depend on your claims. If the claims are not written in a way that describes how your idea was copied, you will not be able to prove infringement. The patent lawyer has the necessary training to ensure that your claims provide the highest legal protection.

If you hire a patent lawyer, the application will probably be the biggest expense in the patenting process. Depending on the nature of your invention, a lawyer might charge anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 for his or her services. The application is also the most important step in the process, since it will form the basis of your patent.

Once the draft of your application is complete, Suzy shows it to you and you work together to correct any errors. Next, you send the application on to the U.S. Patent Office, along with several hundred dollars in submission fees. After submitting the application, the only thing left to do is wait for it to work its way through a government patent examiner's stack of work. In this period, you may begin marketing the teleporter, and you may legally label it "patent pending." When the examiner finally reviews the application, he or she may "allow" (approve) the application as it is submitted or reject the application on the grounds that it is too close to an earlier invention or that the wording is problematic.

Most patents are rejected on first application, and this is not necessarily the end of the road. The examiner will detail exactly why the application was rejected, and you and your lawyer may be able to address these issues by narrowing the focus of the patent. If you choose to go this route, your attorney writes up an amendment and submits the application for a second review. At this point, the examiner might approve the amended application, reject the application or negotiate with your lawyer until both sides are happy. Alternatively, you might decide to give up when you are first rejected, or you might file a brief charging that the examiner was wrong to reject the application.