Patent ownership rights don’t begin until the patent is issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). It usually takes the PTO one to three years after the application is filed to issue a patent, sometimes longer. But ownership issues must be sorted out by the time the application is filed—that is, long before a patent issues and any patent rights actually exist.
This is because all people who will own the invention, if and when a patent issues, must join in the patent application. At this point—before a patent issues—these people own potential, rather than actual, patent rights. Although these are only potential rights, they are subject to the same patent ownership rules that are applied to inventions that have received a patent. Moreover, they can be transferred (sold or licensed) the same as the rights in a patented invention.
As explained below, the inventor is always the initial owner of the potential patent rights in an invention, but this ownership is often transferred to, or shared with, others. To determine who owns a patent, you need to answer the following questions.
- Are you the inventor? If you qualify as the inventor, you will be the original owner of an invention. Click here to determine whether you qualify as an inventor.
- Are you a solo or joint inventor? If you are a solo inventor, you will be the only original owner of your invention. If you’re a joint inventor, you’ll have to share original ownership with your fellow inventors. Click here to determine whether you are a solo inventor or a joint inventor.
- Are you an employee/contractor inventor? If you’re an employed or independent contractor inventor, you may have a legal obligation to assign your ownership rights to your employer or client, or at least give it the right to use and sell your invention for free. This is so whether you are a solo or joint inventor. Click here to learn more about employee/employee invention ownership
- Have you transferred your ownership? If you’re a solo inventor, you may permanently transfer all or part of your ownership through an assignment. Click here to learn more about assignments. If you’re a joint inventor, you’ll need to get the approval of the other joint owners.
Portions of this article are derived from What Every Inventor Needs to Know About Business & Taxes by Attorney Stephen Fishman.
For assistance with the preparation and filing of a provisional patent application, see Nolo’s Online Provisional Patent Application.