Patents provide legal protection to new and unique inventions, and they give the owners (often called “current assignees”) monopoly rights to monetize and utilize their inventions.
The USPTO issues three types of patents that provide different legal protection for inventions.
By understanding the protection provided by each type of patent, patent owners can gain the most benefit from them.
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Patents can be categorized into three types: utility, design, and plant.
A utility patent is what most people think of when they hear the word “patent.” It is also the most common type of patent that inventors apply for. A utility patent protects the creation of new or improved products, processes, compositions of matter, or machines that are useful. In addition, once a patent is granted, the patent owner will have the right to exclude anyone from making, using, or selling this invention for 20 years, starting from the date the patent application was filed.
A design patent only protects the ornamental characteristics and the appearance of a product, but not the structural and functional features. Since design patents and utility patents provide completely different areas of intellectual property protection, you can apply for both utility and design patents for the same product.
A plant patent protects new kinds of plants that have been reproduced asexually. This means that the plant has been reproduced by seeds or by cuttings, and it cannot be a tuber-propagated plant or a plant that is still in an uncultivated state.
Once an invention has been patented, the patent owner has the right to regulate any monetization activities involving the patent.
However, before a patent application is filed, it is important to make sure that the invention is, in fact, new and unique. Otherwise, the patent application will be rejected.
Therefore, in order for any invention to receive a patent, it must meet the following requirements: novelty, non-obviousness, and usefulness.
Under 35 U.S.C. § 102, an invention needs to be new, and it must not have been disclosed to the public, including friends and family or journals, magazines, websites, etc., in order for it to be patentable. It should be noted that the United States is a “relative novelty” country, which means that the USPTO offers a one-year grace period for public disclosure of the invention, measured from the earliest patent application filing date. However, this is not the case for “absolute novelty” countries, including Japan and several European countries.
According to 35 U.S.C. § 103, it must be determined if the invention is obvious to someone with basic knowledge in the field. The patent examiner will examine all the previous relevant patents (prior art) to ensure that no other similar patents exist. To investigate further, the patent examiner may even try to determine if there any obvious similarities by combining two or more prior art references.
For an invention to be useful, it needs to have a functional purpose. So, an applicant will have to prove how the invention can provide an actual use; the invention cannot be something that can only offer a speculative use. A functional purpose does not have to be something as big as a world-saving solution; as long as the invention benefits society by making some type of improvement, the invention can be considered useful.