Have you ever thought about getting a patent to protect that great idea you have for a small business? Well, it can be done, but only under certain specific circumstances. Before you take the plunge, read on to find out the requirements for obtaining a patent.

A patent is the exclusive right granted by a government to an inventor to manufacture, use or sell an invention for a set number of years. In the United States, patents are granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), which is an agency of the Department of Commerce.

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There are three basic types of patents — utility, design and plant — and we will discuss the first as it applies to patenting a business idea.

According to the USPTO website, a utility patent is issued for “the invention of a new and useful process, machine, manufacture or composition of matter, or a new and useful improvement thereof.” Additionally, the USPTO requires that a patented idea or invention be novel, non-obvious (anyone else with the same skills in the relevant area could not have come up with the same idea) and clearly explained and documented so that an equally-skilled person could make and use the invention.

A utility patent permits its owner to exclude others from making, using or selling the invention for a period of up to 20 years from the date of the patent application filing. In recent years, utility patents have accounted for approximately 90 percent of the patent documents issued by the USPTO. The application process for a utility patent (also known as a patent for invention) is illustrated on the USPTO’s website.

If you think your idea is patentable but need more information, the USPTO offers additional guidelines on its website. You can also consult a patent attorney to help with the determination and assist you in meeting the precise documentation and filing requirements for your patent.

If the verdict is your idea or invention is not patentable, you have other options for protecting it. You can obtain a copyright from the U.S. Copyright Office for a small fee that covers original written works (including web content), music or videos. A copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems or methods of doing something.

Another option is a trademark, which differs from a patent in that it only protects words, names, symbols, sounds or colors that distinguish goods and services. Unlike patents, which are for a set period of time, trademarks can be renewed forever as long as they are being used commercially. Basic information about trademarks is available from the USPTO.

Since trademark infringement can be expensive, be sure to do your homework before choosing a name for your business, product or service. Start with the USPTO’s Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) to see if the name, or a variation thereof, is already trademarked. If not, you can apply for the trademark online using the Trademark Electronic Application System (TEAS); fees start at $275.

About the Author: Beth Longware Duff writes about small business know-how, including the benefits of using credit card machine for small business.