Filing a patent protects your invention from being stolen by someone else. Because you may need to raise capital before you are able to actually make the product, you are allowed to apply for the patent once your invention is far enough along to prove that it will work. This is important because venture capitalists will want to see proof of viability but shopping for venture capital also exposes your idea to risk that someone will decide to make it his or her own. Always apply for a patent before you start shopping for money.
Obtaining a patent is a complicated legal process and may take up to two years before your patent is approved or denied. There are many requirements and complications that can arise. When filing for a patent, it's in your best interest to hire a patent attorney, but this can be expensive. There are other ways, including software that will allow you to do your own patent work. However, make sure you follow the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) directions completely, include all required paperwork, and meet all the deadlines.
In order to file a patent, your invention must be patentable. It must meet basic requirements for the three types of patents, which are utility, design, or plant. Utility patents are for new inventions or discoveries. Design patents are for new designs of existing products, as long as the design is new and original. Plant patents are for those who invent or discover new plants or seedlings. Your product must also be novel, non-obvious, and useful. Make sure your invention is patentable before wasting time and money.
The next step is to do a patent search. This search makes sure that you are the first to come up with this invention. There is an online database at USPTO that will give you complete information on any similar products. Yours must be substantially different to be patentable. This search is crucial because the USPTO examiners will conduct their own search, and if they find a similar product, you will lose the time and money you spent trying to patent an unpatentable invention.
Once you've completed the patent search, you can file for either a provisional patent or a regular patent. The provisional patent establishes a date that makes it clear that you were the first with the idea. This is helpful if you need to do market research or look for capital. This gives you the right to use "patent pending" or "patent pending" in your documentation and other paperwork.
Once you've applied for a provisional patent, you have one year to apply for a regular patent. This time cannot be extended and failure to file for a regular patent within the 12 month time frame will void your provisional patent.