Once the examiner is satisfied with your application, you are issued a "Notice of Allowance." All you have to do at this point is pay the patent fee (which runs upwards of $645). During the life of the patent, you have to pay periodic maintenance fees, which come out to thousands of dollars. But if your idea is good enough, the reasoning goes, you will make much more money by licensing your patented idea.
The entire patenting process can take anywhere from a year to five years. The life of the patent actually begins at the application date, not the approval date, so few inventors wait around for final patent approval before selling their invention. An inventor's claim to an idea is also based on the invention date. Whoever completes an original invention first is granted the patent. In some cases, two or more inventors submit the same invention around the same time. When this happens, the patent office must declare an "interference," a trial-like proceeding that determines who was the first inventor. Like a trial case, an interference can be extremely expensive for both parties.
If your invention is of worldwide interest, you might consider applying for patents in other countries. Patenting an idea in the United States only protects you in the United States. Anybody can profit off your idea in another country if it is not patented there. If you plan to patent the invention in other countries, you'll need a patent lawyer with international patenting experience.
Patenting an invention is no easy task, but it is a necessary element in the life of an inventor. While the actual application process and the burden of enforcing a patent can be brutal and unforgiving, owning your ingenious idea is an exhilarating experience. To many inventors, this legal recognition is what makes it all worthwhile.
For more information on patents and related topics, check out the links below.