Simplified somewhat (so as not to take up 100 pages of boring legalistic details), it works like this:
Anyone can invent anything. There is no law and no regulatory agency covering inventors. All one must do to claim an invention as their own is to
apply with the US Patent Office for a patent. This process does not by law require an attorney, but in order to efficiently and practically deal with
the bureaucracy, one is ill-advised to not
hire a patent attorney. The process is exhaustive and does require the payment of fees, although it
is my understanding these are not tremendously expensive in themselves. The services of an attorney, on the other hand, are quite expensive. (Someone
who has a breakdown of exact fees feel free to correct me on this, as I am going by hearsay, albeit from many different sources.)
No prototype or other physical medium is required to apply for a patent. All that is needed is for one to be able to explain in technical language to
their attorney exactly how the invention works. A Patent Draftsman will draw up plans which form the basis of the patent application, included in the
attorney's price. Home-drawn plans are simply not acceptable to the Patent Office.
There is one exception to this rule: if an application describes a device which could be construed to be 'over-unity', 'perpetual motion', etc.,
the Patent Office does require a working demonstration device or the application will be refused. This is a fairly recent decision by the Patent
Office in response to the deluge of patents for such devices that simply did not work.
A patent grants exclusive rights to the device/process/whatever being patented to the inventor for a specific period. An extension is possible,
however the fee for this extension is appreciable. During the lifetime of the patent, the invention belongs exclusively to the inventor and may be
used solely by them or sold to companies to be produced for market. Only a patent gives this legal protection!
There are many myths around
about how to 'protect' your device without the expense of a patent, and all of them are wrong.
Sealing a drawing of your device in an envelope and mailing it to yourself only establishes that you drew it before the date of the postmark. The
owner is not the person who thought of it first, but the person who first applied for a patent
. Yes, people have 'saved' their inventions
that way in the past, but only when there was some legal question of plagiarism (as in the case of a broken non-disclosure contract). Similarly, you
can have a million witnesses to the fact that you showed the device to the company who patented it, but as long as there is no contract between you
and that company stating clerly that you are the inventor and they will not pursue patent rights, it doesn't matter. Even if you have that contract,
you have no claim to the patent itself, but may have a claim to proper reimbursement (as defined by a judge) for your idea.
If you publish information about your invention anywhere that can be accessed by the public, without patent protection at that time, the invention can
no longer be patented. It becomes what is known as 'public domain' and may be used by anyone at any time without any recourse by the inventor. In
other words, talk about it before you apply for the patent, and you just gave it away.
'Patent Pending' is a misunderstood phrase. It does not mean that there is a patent; it means that the inventor has applied with the US Patent
Office for a patent and therefore will be protected should that patent be awarded. If that happens, any protection begins from the date of application
and the inventor may sue anyone using their patent without permission for damages.
There is absolutely no registration or regulation of research. Research takes place in basements, sheds, shops, etc. all over this country every day,
not just in large facilities. If memory is correct, Bull Gates wrote the first Windows OS in his basement after IBM (his employer at the time) told
him they weren't interested in it. (Again, if this is an urban myth, someone tell me.)
The Federal Government may, at its sole discretion, declare anything as a 'threat to national security'. That includes inventions, and they do have
access to Patent Office records (actually, so does everyone; they are public records). So yeah, if you build and patent a device that can knock
satellites from the sky, get ready for a visit from nice men in black suits and dark sunglasses.
Good luck with that multimeter, and as RFBurns said, be careful when you get to the soldering iron. those things get hot.