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By J.D. Houvener
Patent Attorney and Founder

In the world of innovation and invention, the question often arises: Can I patent an improvement to an existing invention? The answer, quite simply, is yes, but there are certain considerations to bear in mind. Such improvements often lead to breakthroughs, addressing limitations, and opening new possibilities in various industries, ultimately driving economic growth and benefiting society as a whole. However, navigating patent laws and processes can be complex, and understanding the ins and outs is vital for protecting your intellectual property. 

Patent Improvements

In the realm of invention, improvements to existing patents often emerge as inventors build upon previous work. These are referred to as “patent improvements.” Just like original inventions, these improvements can also be patented if they meet certain criteria. An improvement patent is granted for modifications that enhance the original invention or provide a new use, essentially forming a new version of the existing invention. The doctrine of improvement patents recognizes the importance of encouraging ongoing innovation and progress by incentivizing inventors to build upon existing inventions rather than starting from scratch.

While you can obtain a patent on certain modifications on an invention, an improvement patent does not automatically give you the right to use the original invention. For instance, if you invent a better lens for a patented camera, you can patent your lens, but you might still need permission from the original patent holder to use or sell your improved lens with their camera. This can lead to complex situations which underscore the importance of professional guidance in patent matters.

Criteria for Patenting an Improvement

Patenting an improvement to an existing invention requires the same core principles applied when patenting a new invention. Primarily, the improvement must be novel, meaning it must be new and not known or used by others in the country, or patented or described in a printed publication anywhere, before the applicant’s invention. The improvement also must not be obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the area of technology related to the invention. In essence, an obvious improvement, something anyone skilled in the field could have thought of, is not patentable.

Furthermore, the improvement must be useful, meaning it provides a practical benefit and is capable of use. The patent application must also clearly and sufficiently describe the invention in a way that allows others skilled in the field to replicate it. Finally, the inventor needs to claim the improvement in clear and definite terms. 

Process to Patent an Improvement

The process of patenting an improvement to an existing invention largely mirrors the process of patenting a new invention. First, a thorough patent search should be conducted to ensure that the improvement is indeed novel. This search can also help avoid potential infringement issues by revealing existing patents that may be similar to your improvement.

Next, prepare and file a patent application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The application should include a detailed description of your improvement, how it is used, and how it differs from and improves upon the original invention. It should also include claims, which are the aspects of the improvement that you wish to protect. If the improvement involves a new use of the original invention, a description of the new use should also be included.

Following the submission, the USPTO will conduct an examination process where an examiner reviews the application to ensure it meets all the patentability requirements. The examiner may issue office actions asking for clarifications or changes to the application, to which the applicant must respond. 

Patent Improvement and Infringement Issues

Creating an improvement to an existing invention may present potential infringement issues. Even if the improved part of the invention is novel and non-obvious, the original patented invention could still have active protection. For instance, if you’ve invented an improved version of a component in a patented machine, even though your improvement is patentable, you could potentially be infringing on the original patent if you manufacture, use, or sell your improved component with the rest of the original machine without permission.

This scenario underscores the importance of acquiring a license from the original patent holder, especially if the improvement cannot be used without the original invention. Licensing agreements enable the owner of the improvement patent to legally use the original patented invention. Without such an agreement, the inventor of the improvement might face legal challenges from the original patent holder for patent infringement. 

Examples of Patent Improvement Cases

One notable example of a successful patent improvement involves the world of smartphones. The original iPhone, patented by Apple, revolutionized the way we interact with phones. However, this didn’t stop other companies from innovating and improving on the original design. Samsung, for instance, has been granted multiple patents for improvements to smartphone technology, including patents for bendable screens, an integrated projector, and an alcohol sensor. These patents illustrate improvements to an existing patent and serve as perfect examples of the patent system fostering ongoing innovation.

On the other hand, the history of patent law is also full of cautionary tales. In the realm of biotechnology, the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 has been a hotbed of patent disputes. The Broad Institute and the University of California have been embroiled in a lengthy legal battle over who has the rights to the original technology and the various improvements to it. This serves as a clear warning of the potential legal issues that can arise when there is a lack of clarity or agreement over patented improvements.

It Is Possible to Patent an Improvement to an Existing Invention

Patenting an improvement to an existing invention is not only possible, but it also fuels the cycle of innovation and growth. However, it’s a process filled with complexity, requiring careful consideration of the patentability criteria and potential infringement issues. As the improvement patent journey can be a challenging one, an attorney at Bold Patents can help you navigate potential pitfalls and protect your intellectual property rights fully. Get in touch with our team today.

About the Author
J.D. Houvener is a Registered USPTO Patent Attorney who has a strong interest in helping entrepreneurs and businesses thrive. J.D. leverages his technical background in engineering and experience in the aerospace industry to provide businesses with a unique perspective on their patent needs. He works with clients who are serious about investing in their intellectual assets and provides counsel on how to capitalize their patents in the market. If you have any questions regarding this article or patents in general, consider contacting J.D. at