Any inventor (individual, agency or company) who wants to protect an invention in a specific country, files a patent application to the patent office of that country. Simultaneous protection in several countries is an option as well. The application contains one or more claims about the extent to which the product or process is innovative. During the patent examination phase, these claims are evaluated and compared to existing inventions: the so-called prior art search. If the invention is sufficiently novel and potentially useful, the patent can be granted. The intellectual right associated with a patent may be assigned to another person/entity (e. g. the employer, another company,… ). In addition, it may be sold/licensed to third parties.

Many patent systems and offices exist worldwide and most countries have a national patent office. The main agencies are the European Patent Office (EPO), the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO), the Japanese Patent Office (JPO) and increasingly also the Chinese and Korean patent offices (SIPO and KIPO respectively). In the EPO system, a patent application is published after 18 months, irrespective of whether the patent will eventually be granted or not. Grants do not follow a strict timetable and it may take up to 5 years before a patent becomes granted. Other patent systems may have different patent award and publication procedures.