What is a Provisional Patent Application?

So what is a provisional patent application (PPA)? -   A provisional patent application is one type of patent application which can be filed in the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).  There are many types of patent applications which an inventor can use to protect his or her idea.   A provisional patent application is essentially a placeholder type application that can be used to protect hold your spot in line at the patent office.  As shown in the image below, a provisional patent application is a type of Utility patent which means its used to protect new products, machines, or methods and how they function. 

Types of Patent Applications filed at the USPTO

what is a provisional patent application

(note that some people will call a the full non-provisional a "utility" patent application which is not proper because both the provisional and non-provisional are types of "utility" patent applications as you can see in the chart above)


Another way to look at it - the engagement/marriage example

provisional patent application example

If you are completely lost, one way to picture this is to compare a provisional patent application to a proposal and marriage.  When you file a provisional patent application its like proposing to your future wife (or husband).  You are not officially married but your significant other is wearing a ring and letting the whole world know they are spoken for (like using the term "patent pending").  Once your engagement period is up, you can either walk away (not get married) or you can go through the wedding ceremony.  Just like when your provisional time period is up (12 months after you file) you can either walk away or file the next type of patent application called the "non-provisional".

In patent terms the wedding ceremony takes years.  At the end of the ceremony you should be married and at the end of the non-provisional patent process you should get an issued patent with a patent number.  Sadly your patent is only valid for 20 years from the date you filed it and hopefully your marriage is for life.

Why file a provisional patent application?

Typically, the provisional patent application is used as an inexpensive way for an inventor to use the term "Patent Pending" for their idea.  The provisional patent application is only active for 1-year and has a low filing cost (currently $60 for most inventors).  After the first year is up, the inventor must either abandon their provisional patent application or file a new patent application called a non-provisional patent application.

Please remember that the provisional patent application is a placeholder that only lasts for 1 year.  Once that 1 year is up, the application will either go abandon or be incorporated into a non-provisional patent application.  The non-provisional patent application is the application which will eventually be issued as a patent and get a patent number.   The advantage of the provisional patent is that it gives you the early filing date of when you filed the provisional instead of the later date of when you filed your non-provisional.  This is important because often times you are racing with other inventors and if your patent is filed first, you will have an advantage (note the United States moved to a first-to-file patent system in March 2013).

What can I do with my provisional patent application (PPA)?

The provisional locks in your filing date with the patent office.  This is called a "priority date" and it is very important.   Lets say that you and your neighbor are both working on the same invention and you file your provisional on Monday and he hires the most expensive patent firm in the word and files his full non-provisional patent application two-weeks later.   Because you filed your provisional patent application first, you have an earlier priority date and therefore priority over him.  If the system works as its supposed to and if you did a good job writing and preparing your provisional patent application, your application should actually block his patent.


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Suggested Next Reading:  The Patent Process