What is a patent and what can be patented?

A patent is a document issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) that grants a monopoly for a limited period of time on the right to manufacture, use, and sell an invention.

What types of inventions can be patented?
The PTO issues three different kinds of patents:

  • utility patents,
  • design patents, and
  • plant patents.

Design patents last for 14 years from the date the patent issues. Plant and utility patents last for 20 years from the date of filing.

To qualify for a utility patent-by far the most common type of patent-an invention must be:

  • a process or method for producing a useful, concrete, and tangible result (such as a genetic engineering procedure, an investment strategy, or computer software)
  • a machine (usually something with moving parts or circuitry, such as a cigarette lighter, sewage treatment system, laser, or photocopier)
  • an article of manufacture (such as an eraser, tire, transistor, or hand tool)
  • a composition of matter (such as a chemical composition, drug, soap, or genetically altered life form), or
  • an improvement of an invention that fits within one of the first four categories.

Often, an invention will fall into more than one category. For instance, a laser can usually be described both as a process (the steps necessary to produce the laser beam) and a machine (a device that implements the steps to produce the laser beam). Regardless of the number of categories into which a particular invention fits, it can receive only one utility patent.

If an invention fits into one of the categories described above, it is known as "statutory subject matter" and has passed the first test in qualifying for a patent. But an inventor's creation must overcome several additional hurdles before the PTO will issue a patent. invention must also:

  • have some utility, no matter how trivial
  • be novel (that is, it must be different from all previous inventions in some important way), and
  • be non obvious (a surprising and Significant development) to somebody who understands the technical field of the invention.

For design patents, the law requires that the design be novel, non-obvious, and non-functional. For example, a new shape for a car fender, bottle, or flashlight that doesn't improve how it functions would qualify.

Finally, plants may qualify for a patent if they are both novel and non-obvious. Plant patents are issued less frequently than any other type of patent.

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