Can You Patent an Idea: Everything You Need To Know

Say you have an idea for an incredible, ground-breaking invention that’ll surely change the world and bring you millions. You’ve got the concept down and may even be in the development process, but you’re not quite finished yet. Still, you want to ensure your idea is safe and are looking to patent it, which begs the question: can you patent an idea?

In this guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about patenting ideas and how you can go about protecting your new inventions.

woman researching can you patent an idea

Can You Patent an Idea?

For better or for worse, you cannot patent an idea alone. After all, if everyone could patent something as rudimentary as an idea, there would be some severe issues with technological progression.

For an innovation to be reviewed and approved by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), it must adhere to a strict code of requirements, which are covered below.

Requirements to Get a Patent Approved

To prevent people and businesses from patenting every idea that comes to mind, there are a few rules an invention must follow before the USPTO approves it.

It’s Non-Obvious

There must be something about an invention’s processes, creation, or function that cannot be readily figured out and recreated by the average person within a field. Moreover, it must convey a level of innovation and creativity that aren’t “obvious” to most other people, thus non-obvious.


The innovation must be wholly original and have never been implemented as a patent before. Preconceived patents for an idea are known as “prior arts” and are not applicable for approval. In order to save time and money, it’s best to do heavy research on the USPTO’s main site’s patent index before attempting to patent an invention.


Innovations must be completely new and not resemble inventions that already exist. You cannot patent something that builds off of another creation, nor can you loosely base your design on a pre-existing idea. Even the creator of an invention should not disclose the existence of the innovation prior to the patent, or they risk losing the potential for a patent.


Finally, the invention in question must have an application. For example, a creation that has no meaning, no utility, and serves no purpose has no definable worth and thus cannot receive a patent. Essentially, innovation should be helpful in some way. 

There is no direct interpretation to define what makes an invention “useful,” but this standard is typically intrinsically met and not an issue for most inventors. If you’re still unsure, consider writing a list of all the utilities and uses of your invention.

See Also: Patent Pending Meaning & Key Facts

What a Patent Idea Cannot Be

In addition to the aforementioned requirements of a patent, there are some things that the grounds for a patent cannot be.

Cannot Be Abstract

For the USPTO to approve an invention, it cannot be an abstract concept lacking direct applicability to real-world processes. Theoretical ideas and mathematical equations with no external purposes are instances of abstract inventions that cannot be patented.

Cannot Be Natural Discoveries

Natural discoveries such as new species and natural wonders cannot be patented unless they are a crucial apparatus of an invention.

Cannot Remain Undefined

Your innovations must be defined to be eligible to receive a patent. In that context, the USPTO will not consider speculations and unfinished concepts.

Types of Patents

You have the answer to the question, “can you patent an idea?” so let’s next look at the three main types of patents you might encounter:

Utility Patent

The utility patent is the most common type of patent and includes the invention of an object or process that exemplifies usefulness to a person or company in some way. An inventor reserves the right for all legal production, innovation, and distribution for 20 years and can be classified under one of the following categories:

  • A process: A list of steps and methods that lead to a specific, beneficial outcome.
  • A machine: It’s a combination of parts that create a unified device to serve a purpose.
  • A composite: Is an innovation of matter, such as a new chemical substance that can be used in building structures.
  • A Manufacture: A cumulation of parts that create an object, usually a product, and comprise something entirely new.

Related: What does Patent Pending mean and its benefits and use cases?

Design Patent

The design patent is the original and unique appearance of an invention. This type of patent is more lenient than a utility patent but doesn’t last as long (14 years), nor does it retain the same degree of utility. 

Plant Patent

The least used patent is the plant patent. It is reserved for newly discovered plants that can reproduce asexually and that a company or organization has successfully replicated. The plant patent lasts 20 years.

Steps To Apply for a Patent

Applying for a patent takes tons of research, planning, and time. It’s no easy task, but crucial for ensuring an inventor’s rights are adequately secured. 

To increase the odds of successfully receiving a patent, follow these essential steps:

Meet the Requirements

The first thing you need to consider is if your innovation meets all the requirements listed in this guide. Missing just one of your obligations could spell failure in the patenting process, so make sure you pay close attention to detail.

Search for Prior Arts

Take your research beyond the USPTO’s website, and search for anything that may be considered a prior art. If you find another invention that resembles yours, but you believe you have a completely new case, you can do the following:

  • Fight it – argue against previous patents stating how yours is different and why it deserves to be classified differently.
  • Avoid it – distinguish your invention to the point where the resemblances no longer exist.
  • Accept it – sometimes “new” ideas aren’t so new. In these cases, you’ll have to move on and accept it.

Determine Commercial Potential

Basically, can you profit from your invention? If you can’t, it’s not worth a patent (unless you want to ensure you receive credit). Patents can cost thousands of dollars and take over a year to complete, so if you don’t plan on making money, then you probably don’t need them.

File for a Provisional Patent

A provisional patent is almost akin to a provisional driver’s license; you get some of the USPTO’s protection from a temporary patent and receive an official one later (if approved). 

You also don’t have to officially disclose your invention (thus adhering to the non-disclosure requirement), which gives an inventor a year’s time to apply for an official one.

File for an Official Patent

Once you have everything in order, it’s time to submit an application for an official patent. Make sure your report is excruciatingly detailed and includes various visual elements. 

Additionally, sometimes hiring a professional can make all the difference in whether or not your innovation gets improved.

Conclusion: Patenting an Idea

So can you patent an idea? Unfortunately, you cannot patent a mere idea, but there are measures in place to ensure that your original invention receives the patent it deserves. It’s a long and arduous process, but if you follow everything outlined in this guide, you will ensure a smooth transition when it comes time to start your patent application.