The first thing that you need to know about how to get a patent is whether or not your idea is even patentable. A lot of interesting ideas are too similar to something that is already on the market to qualify for a patent, so you might not be able to get one. In general, you can apply for a patent for a new:
- Article of Manufacture
- Composition of Matter
- Ornamental design (for an article of manufacture)
- Asexually reproduced plant
As long as your invention is non-obvious, new, and actually useful.
You cannot apply to patent an abstract idea, a law of nature, anything which is offensive to public morality, or a work of art, literature, music or drama. The latter four are covered by copyright law, rather than patent.
If you are confident that you can patent your work, then before you look at how to get a patent you should make sure that the work really is new. Check existing patents as well as trade papers, technical papers and academic writings. Look for other products on the market, and make sure that yours is clearly an improvement upon them or makes noteable changes that affect the design in a way that makes it unique in function or performance. Trivial differences are not enough to get a patent.
Document your design clearly, with drawings and diagrams as well as text to explain how you came up with the idea, how it is better or different to existing ideas, and each iteration of the idea. The more clearly you describe it the more likely the patent is to be approved.
To give yourself time to prepare a full patent application, consider applying for a Provisional Patent. The Provisional Patent Application process is shorter and less expensive, and gives you a year during which you can claim you have a patent pending, and your full patent will be backdated to that time, assuming it is granted. Once you have completed the PPA, it is important that you do not let it lapse, because if it lapses then you will lose the protection and the ability to have your patent considered as if it were put in for on that date.
DIY or Use an Attorney?
Applying for a patent can be a time-consuming process. Many people find that it makes more sense for them to pay a little more to get an attorney to do it for them. This becomes particularly worthwhile when you consider that there are more than half a million patent applications waiting to be processed if you get it wrong you could have a long wait to find out that you made a mistake and need to re-apply, and the fees can be high. Paying a little more up-front simply makes commercial sense, and will be the best thing for protecting your business. Only attorneys that have been approved by the USPTO and are on their register can file for patents for a third party.