What is a patent?

A patent is a legal property right granted to the person or entity who designs, invents, or cultivates a new and original product, process, technology, or service, any of which can be assigned a monetary value. A patent holder is granted the ability to make, sell, and use the idea for a specified period of time, while excluding others from doing so. During that time, the patent holder may sell (assign) the right to another person or entity so they can manufacture, sell, or use the idea.

Patents are issued by a governing agency of the country in which the patent application is filed, and they are enforceable only within the country. In the United States patents for inventions that meet statutory criteria are granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The patent system is designed to encourage inventions that are unique and useful to society. Congress was given the power to grant patents in the constitution, and the federal statutes and rules govern Patents.

The USPTO issues three types of patents:

  • Design patent. This type of patent can be obtained for a reproducible change in the decorative appearance, configuration, ornamental design, or shape of a utilitarian item. Design patents are typically less expensive than utility patents and they are issued much faster.
  • Utility patents. Any useful apparatus, machine, manufactured item, or composition of matter can be covered by a utility patent. The ideas of most inventors fall under this category. Utility patents can also be granted for software programs and mathematical algorithms used in software programs (abstract mechanical algorithms cannot be patented).
  • Plant patents. Any new species of plant which can be produced sexually (with seeds) or asexually (without seeds) is eligible for protection under this type of patent.

Some ideas might benefit from more than one type of patent, usually both utility patent and a design patent.