Many inventors and manufacturers apply for official patents through the United States Patents and Trade Office (USPTO), but the approval process can take at least 18 months. In order to establish ownership of a product idea, inventors and manufacturers often place the words "Patent Pending" (abbreviated Pat. Pend.) directly on the products until the official patent is issued. This term lets other inventors and marketers know that the USPTO application process has already begun and it's only a matter of time before a 20 year patent is granted, at least in the case of products.
There are certain conditions under which the "Patent Pending" designation can be used. The most important condition is to actually have a patent awaiting approval in the USPTO or foreign equivalent. Unscrupulous manufacturers cannot legally place the words "Patent Pending" on a product without a patent. Once the actual application has started, only the inventor or manufacturer can use the term for intellectual property protection. Once a patent is issued, the official patent number should replace any other stopgap designations.
The use of "Patent Pending", surprisingly enough, does not fully protect the inventor or manufacturer from competitors. Until the USPTO patent application is completely approved, any other manufacturer can legally use the basic concepts behind any product or technology. What the Patent Pending designation does is let all other competitors know that, in a relatively short amount of time, the product (along with the design and manufacturing ideas) will be the exclusive property of the patent holder. Other companies can continue to produce similar products right up until the official patent is issued and the markings on the patented product are changed.
Using the term "Patent Pending" knowing an application has not been made is considered a federal crime and can mean major financial fines and/or prison time. It can be tempting as an independent inventor with little investment capital to create a false "Patent Pending" designation, but this could lead to a serious charge of trademark or patent infringement. Many larger corporations with research and development departments routinely apply for patent protection on ideas which may never see the light of day. It is up to would-be entrepreneurs and inventors to investigate the USPTO's archives of patented or patent pending products before investing time and money in a similar concept.