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Regular Patent Application (RPA)

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There are a number of types of patent applications, and a number of types of patents, but when we speak of a "patent application," generally we are talking about a utility patent application -- aka, a regular patent application (RPA).  This application is your formal request to the US government that it give you a 17-20 year monopoly to make, sell and use your invention.  If the US Patent and Trademark Office decides that you have an invention that is protectable under the US Patent Act, it will issue Letters Patent to you, which is what you march into court with if someone attempts to steal your invention.  

In order to obtain a patent, you are first required to disclose how to "make and use" your invention.  This is your part of the bargain with the government.  In return for your disclosure the government will grant you a monopoly for 20 years from the date you file.  But your monopoly will be strictly limited to just what you claim in the RPA.  The RPA consists of a disclosure (including drawings) and a detailed claim of your invention. 

What you claim as your invention is actually a set of numbered statements called "claims" that set forth in detailed language all of the elements and limitations of your invention.  If your invention is a method, then the claims set forth the steps of the method.   

If you have never seen or read a patent here is a link to a very simple patent of my own that will give you a good idea of what a patent is.  When I was awarded this patent in 2001 the US government gave me a monopoly good for 20 years from the date I filed the application to make, use and sell a lever for bar taps that allows the barmaid to fill a glass or jug using just one hand.  [As you can imagine, the research for this project was horrendous -- very tedious and time-consuming.]  This patent is displayed publicly on the PTO's web site, as yours will be once it is issued.  

The RPA starts off as an application, but once it is allowed by the PTO, the same document becomes your patent.  What you claim in the application as your invention is all you will be entitled to protect in court.  The RPA is, thus, the "title" to your invention, and like a real estate title it must be drafted carefully in order to comply with currently applicable laws.  It is quite possible for you to draft and file your own RPA and obtain a patent on your own if you have enough time and incentive.  In fact, examiners are required to assist those who apply for their own patents.  A DIY book from Nolo Press by David Pressman (Patent It Yourself) takes you through the process step-by-step.  (Even if you hire a professional, this is a good book to have at hand so you can follow the process.)  

But be forewarned: all patents are not equal, and some patents are not worth the effort it took to print them, and if you ever have to enforce the patent against an infringer, his lawyers will do everything they can to invalidate your patent.  To extend our analogy with real estate, when people ask me whether they can draft and prosecute their own patent, my rule of thumb is that anyone who would not be willing to do the legal work required to close on house sale --  draft the contract, draft the deed and title, and record the deed -- probably wouldn't want to pursue a patent on their own because drafting a good, strong patent is, in most cases, much, much more difficult than drafting and recording a deed and title to real estate.   That is why inventor's hire patent professionals.