More than 7 million U.S. patents have been issued since 1790, when three patents were issued the year the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) was established. That number has steadily and dramatically grown, rising in the last 25 years from 61,227 in 1980 to 187,170 last year. Clearly, in today's world, there is an ever-growing demand for new ideas and innovations.

The USPTO Web site (http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/com/iip/index.htm) outlines the steps needed to apply for a patent. Generally, applications must be filed within a year of the first public use, offer to sell, or printed publication of an invention. The cost of obtaining a patent depends on the complexity of the invention, among other factors, but generally ranges from $10,000 to $20,000. It takes the office an average of 27 months to process an application, but it can vary from 12 to 48 months or more.