A provisional patent application is not a patent, and furthermore, never becomes a patent, with the single rare exception noted below. It automatically expires after twelve months following the day of filing and cannot be revived.
It does provide a priority date for concurrent later-filed non-provisional applications for the content that is in the provisional. This means that references that could defeat the later-filed application as to the matter in the provisional (but which could not defeat the provisional filing date) will now not be utilized to defeat the later-filed application. Further, it does not subtract from the twenty year term of the later-filed application unless it is truly converted as discussed below.
While patent attorneys often speak of “converting” a provisional into a non-provisional, this is not usually an accurate description of the case (with a single exception), since the provisional has no life beyond its twelve-month term and “converting” is usually done by filing a non-provisional application that claims benefit of the filing date of the provisional. Thus, the provisional is primarily a means for delaying the filing of a non-provisional patent application, while still getting benefit of the earlier filing date of the provisional. (The single exception as to “converting” is that a provisional patent application can be truly converted with an extra processing fee if it has a least one claim, or is amended to contain at least one claim, but this process is rarely done, since now the term of the resulting non-provisional will be twenty years from the date of the provisional filing, thereby losing a year.)
A provisional patent application requires a full written specification and all the drawing figures, but does not require claims. It is never examined (unless truly converted) other than to ensure that the proper papers are present.
Lastly, a provisional patent application never sees the light of day and remains confidential, unless a non-provisional patent application (or a Patent Cooperation Treaty application — to preserve foreign filing rights — or a design application) takes priority to it.
For more information on provisional patent applications, see Provisional Patent Application.
A non-provisional patent application, sometimes called a “regular” patent application or just a “patent application”, is a “real” application for a patent. It will be examined, and ultimately, through the examination process can mature into a patent. It’s “term” or life ends twenty years from the earliest priority date, which may be the date it is filed or the date that an application from which it takes priority benefit is filed. (See above for the effect of a provisional priority date.)
A complete non-provisional patent application contains at least a specification, all the drawing figures and at least one claim. Claims are the invention. The specification and drawings must disclose what is in the claims, but they do not comprise the invention, only the claims do. Twenty claims are paid for with the filing fee, of which three may be independent claims. (Independent claims stand alone. The remaining are dependent claims which refer to another claim and thus cannot stand alone.)