Inventors often seek patents to protect their rights to their creation for a period of time. This gives them legal recourse should another party try to use, sell or make their invention without their permission.
There are three main types of patents that inventors can seek. Outlined below is a closer look at each category.
A utility patent is a type of patent for new and useful inventions that fall into one of five categories: an improvement of an existing idea, a process, a manufacture, a machine or a composition of matter.
In many cases, inventions will fall under more than one category. Computer software may be considered a machine as well as a process, for example. However, no matter how many categories apply to an invention, it can only receive one utility patent. Typically, when people are discussing patents in general, they are usually referring to the utility patent.
Some examples of creative works that could qualify for a utility patent include chemical formulas, procedures or processes; biological inventions; cosmetics; electronic circuits and electrical inventions; housewares; computer peripherals, hardware and software; industrial machines; and food inventions. Specific examples include engines, computer programs, medications and watches.
Utility patents last for 20 years from the date the application was first filed and allow holders to prevent other parties from importing, using, selling or making the protected invention. This enables the inventor to form an exclusive market for selling their invention.
Utility patents are issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and are difficult to obtain. They can be highly complex, which means most inventors enlist the services of a patent attorney to guide them through the process. A technical illustrator may also be needed to draft drawings for the patent application before it is filed.
Design patents are a specific type of patent that protects the unique visual qualities of a specific manufactured item. To qualify, products must have a distinct surface ornamentation or configuration. This type of patent applies to the ornamental design of an item that has practical utility.
It means that items that are substantially similar to the protected design cannot be made, imported, used or copied. In some countries, this type of patent may be known by another name, such as a registered design.
Currently, design patents are issued with a 15-year term from the date they are granted. They provide a competitive advantage by deterring other firms from developing items that look similar to the patented design.
A design patent differs from a utility patent in the sense that it is focused solely on the appearance of the object. This means that a product may obtain a utility patent and a design patent at the same time. Design patents can include a single claim and are typically less expensive to obtain than utility patents. Without one, businesses and designers face the risk of their competitors using a copycat design.
There are many examples of design patents in everyday life as they include the ornamental designs found on everything from furniture and emojis, to vehicles and jewelry. The original curved glass Coca-Cola bottle and the Statue of Liberty are two examples of famous objects with design patents. Recently, Apple was awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from Samsung, who violated design patents on the iPhone.
Plant patents are intellectual property rights that offer protection to new or unique plants by preventing their defining characteristics from being used, sold or copied by other parties. These patents are granted by the USPTO to an inventor or their heirs and allow them to enjoy higher profits during the protection period by stopping their competition from using the plant.
Inventors are given one year within the release or sale of their plant to apply for these patents, and they will only be granted if a complete botanical description and drawings are submitted.
Patentable plants may be bred, natural, or created using the non-reproductive cells of the plant. Although plant patents may be granted to both invented and discovered plants, it is important to note that discovered plants are only eligible if they were found in a cultivated area. Algae and macrofungi can qualify for a patent, but bacteria are ineligible.
There are several other requirements for a plant patent. For example, the plant must be reproducible asexually, and its reproduction should be identical to the original from a genetic standpoint. It must be reproducible using means such as budding, grafting, bulbs, root cuttings or division. The plant must also be nonobvious, and it cannot be unique solely based on its growing conditions.
For certain types of seeds, plants and reproduction processes, a utility patent may be more appropriate. Inventors of new plant varieties that have unique appearances may also seek a design patent.
Plant patents offer protection for a period of 20 years from the date the application is filed. However, inventors should note that their application will become public 18 months after they file, allowing competitors to obtain details about the invention sooner.
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