Anybody who wants to exclude others from using their invention. A patent is a government granted monopoly over an idea, typically for 20 years. The U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, allows this monopoly in order to make human ideas exclusive and rivalrous, which are by nature free and non-rivalrous. This generates commercial value. Patents are expensive and often not worth the cost unless you will gain financially by excluding others (competitors) from the market. Many people obtain patents for pride of ownership and this can be rewarding as well. But mostly patents are obtained to create a competitive advantage in a commercial marketplace.
Federal law allows you to patent "any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof." 35 U.S.C. §101. Additionally, your idea must be novel and non-obvious. These dual requirements mandate that (1) your idea is not already published or patented, 35 U.S.C. §102, and (2) is different from prior art in such a way that it would not have been obvious to a person having ordinary skill in the art to which the claimed invention pertains. 35 U.S.C. §103 The application of these requirements is driven heavily by case law and skilled claim construction.
As soon as your idea comes into your mind! One thing many people do not realize about patents is that you do not need to create anything at all! You only need the idea. Another thing some people do not realize is the more people you discuss your idea with others the more risks you create of losing your ability to patent the idea. Therefore this is the first thing you should do if you think you have a novel idea.
Patents applications are filed with the USPTO, usually online. Paper application are disfavored and cost extra money. See these links for more.
USPTO EFS-Web For Filing Online
First Action Interview
Patent Prosecution Highway
Priority Document Exchange
Good question! You can start by calling us today and we can walk you through the process with a free consultation.