What Is a Provisional Patent Application?

A provisional patent application (PPA) is a document issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that helps protect a new invention from being copied during the 12-month period before a formal patent application is filed. It is intended to give an inventor time to pitch the idea, test its commercial feasibility, or refine a product before committing to the expensive and time-intensive process of a formal application.

The "patent pending" label on a product indicates that a provisional patent application has been submitted.

Key Takeaways

  • A provisional patent application is the first step towards gaining a U.S. patent on a new idea or invention.
  • The "patent pending" label indicates a product that is protected from copycats by a provisional patent application.
  • A provisional patent application is not an actual patent.


The Basics of a Provisional Patent Application

The provisional application is a short-term means of protecting an invention or concept and requires less effort and expense than a formal patent application (formally called a non-provisional patent application). In the U.S., both processes go through the USPTO.

The PPA isn't examined by the USPTO, so it does not indicate that the invention is unique enough to actually receive a patent. However, submitting a PPA does save a filing date, which can help in getting the patent through the process down the road.

A PPA is simpler and more concise than a patent application. It frequently takes 10 pages or less to explain the product’s design and the purpose that it serves and to provide one or more illustrations if they are necessary to clarify the concept.

The Benefits of a PPA

Getting a PPA is also less expensive than obtaining a full patent, and may not require the services of a patent attorney. As of 2018, PPA filing fees are $70 for a so-called "micro-entity," $140 for a small firm and $280 for a large business. The USPTO has a very long list of fees for the many patent-related services it offers.

However, the requirements for a provisional patent application are straightforward. It is a clear description of a unique new product and how it can be used.

There are several benefits to obtaining a provisional patent. First, the inventor doesn't have to worry about a manufacturer or other interested party stealing an idea, as the “patent pending” label signals some legal rights in the event of infringement.

Second, it allows the inventor to test and perfect a concept prior to filing a full patent. Crucially, it also puts an official filing date on the record with the USPTO. Being the first inventor to file a concept can be critical to establishing a patent if competing ideas are being considered.

What a PPA Isn't

A provisional patent application is not a provisional patent. That is, it does not indicate that an idea or invention has been approved or even reviewed for a patent. The application and its protection expire after 12 months, whether or not its inventor files a full patent application.

The provisional patent application records an idea and signals an intention to follow up with the details in a formal patent application. It can effectively forestall another inventor claiming to have had the same idea at an earlier date. It could be considered the first step in acquiring a patent.