Can You Patent an Idea?

One of the most frequent questions inventors ask is “Can I patent an idea?”

The short answer: Yes and no. Or as they often say in the law, “it depends”!

Patenting an idea is not a simple matter.

Every invention described in any given patent is basically an idea. However, in a well written patent, the invention is something more- an idea given some kind of concrete form. Patent law, particularly the Patent Act (title 35 of the United States Code), defines the outlines of what is patentable.

Patentable Subject Matter

The Patent Act holds that there are four categories of inventions eligible for patents: processes, machines, manufactures (e.g. manufactured articles), and compositions of matter (e.g. chemical compositions). In order to patent an idea, it must fit into one or more of these categories.

There are many ideas that do not fall into any of these categories, for example:

  • a law of nature (e.g. to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction);
  • a rule of human behavior (e.g. people in a particular demographic tend to buy the same items);
  • a biological hypothesis (taking antioxidant supplements make people healthier);
  • a philosophy or a religion.

Furthermore, inventions must be new and useful. An invention is new if the invention has never been seen or used before. The more simple and general an invention is, the less likely it is to be considered new. The concept of “useful” is more subtle. In the context of patent law, “useful” does not mean an invention or idea is useful, but rather that the invention has at least one (ideally explicitly stated) specific use.

What is Required in the Patent Document

Your patent must detail the use of the invention.

The Patent Act requires that a patent must set out a written description of how to make and use an invention. This description must contain enough detail so that any person who is skilled in the technological field of the invention can make and use the invention as described in the patent. The patent must further set out the best mode contemplated by the inventor of carrying out the invention. Essentially this means a patent must set out at least one concrete, real-world implementation and use of the invention, the best implementation and use the inventor can think of at the time of the patent.

In summary, an invention that is no more than a basic concept is simply not concrete enough to support a patent. You need to show at least one implementation and use of the basic concept, and ideally, as many implementations and uses of the basic concept as you can think of.

All That Being Said

Ultimately, the claims of a well-drafted patent determine what ideas the patent protects. If your idea is truly new and groundbreaking, if you can describe a wide range of concrete and useful implementations of the idea, you may be able to claim broadly enough to cover all meaningful uses of the idea. Such a patent is, for all practical purposes, a patent on an idea. So yes, sometimes you can patent an idea in certain situations.

Law 4 Small Business, P.C. (L4SB). A little law now can save a lot later.

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