The total costs to obtain a patent and to maintain it vary. This is true because patenting costs in different jurisdictions vary but is also due to each patent by its very nature being directed to a unique invention. There is always a speculative aspect to patenting that means there are no guarantees of success or efficiency. Uncertainty about the total expenses can make planning and budgeting more difficult. However, upfront budget planning can be aided by grouping typical costs into three categories:
These categories of costs generally arise one after another and not all at once. Each of them is discussed in more detail below. The present discussion is not meant to provide specific price ranges. Rather, the goal is to understand what sorts of fees are generally foreseeable and when they arise. Hopefully this helps applicants to request desired cost estimates from a patent practitioner, and to understand what such estimates do—and do not—cover. Though sometimes a good analogy is that the total cost to obtain a utility patent can be comparable to buying a car, running anywhere from approximately $15,000 to $50,000 or more.
Preparation and Filing
The first and often largest category of expenses is the preparation and filing of a new patent application. These costs can be broken in two: official filing fees and professional fees for a patent attorney. Additionally, because patent rights are territorial, filing related patent applications in multiple countries or jurisdictions will generate costs associated with each of them, though not necessarily all at the exact same time. Translation costs may be significant for foreign filings.
Official Filing Fees
There are official government fees required when filing a patent application. These official fees are paid to a given patent office. There are basic filing fees, plus the possibility of extra claim fees, multiple dependent claim fees, application size fees, late filing surcharges, and other miscellaneous additional official fees and surcharges. Strictly speaking, the basic filing fees can include search and examination fees, which in some countries may be deferred for a period of time.
Only a certain number of claims can be included without paying additional official fees in most countries. This means the total official fees will depend on the content and length of a given application, including the number of claims. This also means that the need for extra claim fees may not be known until the application and claims are drafted. For U.S. patent applications there are extra claim fees for having more than twenty (20) total claims and/or more than three (3) independent claims.
In the U.S., official filing fees also depend on the entity size of the patent applicant. Discounted rates for many official fees are available to applicants who qualify as a small entity or micro entity. Therefore, to determine the official fees for a new U.S. patent application, it is necessary to first determine the entity size. Keep in mind that the highest, undiscounted (large entity) fees will apply if a discounted entity size status (small or micro) cannot be established.
The type of patent application filed can also affect the applicable fees. For instance, provisional, utility (non-provisional), design, and PCT international applications are possible and the official fees vary for each.
Professional Fees (Attorney Fees)
A patent application is customized and specially-prepared for each invention. The costs to have a patent attorney prepare a new application are often one of the single largest in the entire process of obtaining a patent. These costs vary widely. Some important factors are the particular patent attorney’s billing rate as well as the complexity of the invention and the scope of desired patent coverage.
The patenting process is complex. Attorney’s fees for patent application preparation and drafting reflect the need to anticipate how a patent will later be examined and possibly later enforced against an infringer. Sometimes extra effort to prepare a better initial application can result in lower costs later on during examination and/or enforcement. Many times a well-drafted patent application can also help enhance the scope of coverage and the chances of obtaining a granted patent.
Conducting a patentability search and analysis prior to drafting a new application can also be helpful. This is usually not legally required. But a patentability search has many benefits, including the potential to avoid further costs if the invention is determined to be unpatentable or helping to allow preparation of a better patent application through knowledge of the closest prior art (potentially reducing prosecution costs). It does, however, add to the total costs of preparing and filing a new patent application.
In most countries, including the USA, patent applications must undergo an official pre-grant examination that determines if the claimed invention is patentable. It may be many months or years after initial filing before examination actually begins. The vast majority of patent applications receive a rejection indicating that the application cannot be granted as a patent for one or more reasons. Such rejections and objections are made in office actions. The applicant can then respond to try to establish that the claimed invention is patentable. This back-and-forth is referred to as patent “prosecution”.
The number of office actions and the amount of effort to respond to them varies from one application to the next. It is common to have at least one or two—the average in the U.S. is between two and three. A given office action often does not require payment of any further official fees. But there can be official fees required at times during examination, such as for extensions of time to respond, to add extra claims, to extend or reopen examination (e.g., a request for continued examination), to file an appeal or petition, etc. The professional fees will vary depending upon the patent attorney’s rates and the total amount of effort involved.
For budgeting purposes, the total costs of prosecution are perhaps the most variable and least easy to predict. Though some non-zero prosecution expenses should be expected. It may be easiest to estimate these costs per office action and response, and to plan for at least two or three such office actions and responses. Further examination costs can always be avoided by abandoning an application, although this results in loss of rights.
Prosecution costs tend to vary depending on what invention is being claimed. The closer the invention is to the prior art the more effort may be required to articulate what is patentable. Moreover, seeking a broader scope of protection frequently translates into higher prosecution costs. Of course, broader patent claims are usually more valuable than narrower ones, which may make those higher costs worthwhile. Patent applicants have a good deal of control over their patenting strategy and its effect on prosecution costs. But some aspects are not fully under an applicant’s control.
In some countries, but not in the U.S, official annuity fees may be due on a yearly basis in order to keep an application active during examination. These annuity fees vary by jurisdiction.
Filing additional continuing (or divisional) patent applications is also possible while a given application is pending. Such optional additional filings carry their own costs. These may be worthwhile if a given application encompasses multiple inventions, and can arise following a restriction requirement.
Issuance and Maintenance
There are generally official issuance or grant fees required in order to obtain a patent after an application is determined to be patentable. In the USA, this is called an issue fee. In other countries these fees may have a different name or be structured differently, such as validations of a European patent in one or more participating countries. The official fees must be paid and there is typically some professional fee to have a patent attorney handle the payment and related matters like forwarding the granted patent.
After a patent is granted, additional fees are later required in order to keep the patent in force. In the U.S., official maintenance fees must periodically be paid by the 4th, 8th, and 12th year of a given patent’s term. The amounts of these official fees increase over the term of the patent. There are also late payment surcharges. The patent will lapse if a maintenance fee is not paid. However, maintenance fees are not required for U.S. design patents.
In most other countries, post-grant annuity fees are required on a yearly basis to keep a patent in force. Annuity fees are like maintenance fees just on a different schedule.
Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.