I am a Patent Agent in Raleigh, North Carolina and I work with clients to help them protect their intellectual property rights. I have a technical background with a Bachelors degree in Electrical Engineering and Masters degree in Materials Engineering. I have experience in system design and automated test systems and I want to help you understand a little about US patent law and how you can use the patent system to protect your innovative creation.
The US patent system is designed to encourage innovators to share their inventions so the community at large can benefit. In exchange for disclosing your invention, a patent grants the right to prevent others from making, using, selling or importing your invention for a fixed period of time. To receive a patent, your invention must be new, useful and non-obvious. Each of these requirements serves as a hurdle at the patent office.
The “new” hurdle means that your invention must not have been known to the the public prior to your filing date. The US does provide a one-year grace period for disclosures by the inventor but most foreign countries do not. This means that if you describe or display your invention in a public setting, you have one year to file a patent application in the US but you will have waived your patent rights in most foreign countries. So be careful with your disclosures.
The general term for something known to the public is prior art and this can include almost anything that that has been documented somewhere. The search for prior art related to your invention can be a challenging task, particularly when it comes to existing patents and published patent applications. I always recommend getting a professional prior art search conducted as soon as you have enough information to provide a detailed description of your invention and how it improves over the prior art. See my post on Prior Art Searching for more information.