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 What is a Patent?

Patents are sets of legal rights that are granted to protect individuals’ inventions. Patents grant the inventors the right to exclude other individuals from engaging in certain conduct related to a patent without authorization, including:

  • Using;
  • Making; or
  • Selling.

These rights help to deter other individuals or entities from engaging in patent infringement. A patent can be obtained by filing an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

Obtaining a patent is typically a detailed process that requires the applicant to satisfy numerous requirements. A patent typically stays in effect for 20 years.

Patents may be used in many different areas of technology and industry.

What Can be Patented?

A patent will typically apply to an invention or a related subject. This contrasts with copyrights, which are applicable to works of art, including:

  • Music;
  • Books;
  • Literature; and
  • Other works.

There are many different types of patents that may apply to different aspects of inventions, including:

  • Design patents: These protect the non-functional aspects of inventions, such as color schemes or aesthetic patterns;
  • Utility patents: These encompass the practical and functional applications of the invention, for example, mechanical functions. These also cover improvements of an existing invention; and
  • Plant patents: These protect individuals who invent different plant species. These must be new plants that are not already in existence.

Patents cover a wide range of subject matter related to inventions. Patents help protect the market economy by encouraging individuals to invent while, at the same time, protecting inventors from unauthorized use or replication of their invention.

Can I Patent Anything?

Under federal patent laws, patents are given to inventors to exclude other individuals or entities from “making, using, offering for sale, and/or selling the invention” in the U.S. In other words, patents are given to inventors to protect their inventions.

A patent typically exists for 20 years. Patents may be applied to any inventions in any technology field. Patents are included in international agreements with the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Because of this, the member nations of the WTO are expected to recognize and enforce legal patents. In general, in order to receive a patent from the USPTO, an invention must meet several requirements, including being:

  • New;
  • Unique; and
  • Generally unobvious.

There are different types of patents that may be available depending on the item that a party wishes to patent:

  • Utility patent: Generally speaking, an invention must be a method or process with:
    • A concrete result;
    • A machine;
    • A biological or chemical composition of matter; or
    • An invention improvement;
  • Design patent: Subject to a few exceptions, the invention must be:
    • novel;
    • non-obvious;
    • nonfunctional; and
  • Plant patent: Plants that an individual creates can be patented; however, the plant must be novel and non-obvious.

Examples of what cannot be patented include:

  • Naturally occurring substances;
  • Laws of nature;
  • Ideas; and
  • Calculation methods.

Where Do I Obtain a Patent?

The United States Patent and Trademark Office is the agency responsible for receiving and processing applications for patents, including making patent determinations. Inventors are required to submit an application to the USPTO which includes specific drawings as well as a plan for the proposed invention.

The application must also include an application fee. The plan of the invention that is provided must adhere to a fairly specific and rigid form.

Once a patent application is reviewed, the USPTO will typically question the applicant regarding any objections that the office may have. It is important for an applicant to be aware that, as of September 2011, an inventor who first files their patent will receive the exclusive rights.

Before September 2011, patent protections were granted to the parties who first invented a technology or product.

What Cannot Be Patented?

Patent laws classify physical phenomena as products of nature. Because of this, if an individual’s invention occurs in nature, it is considered a physical phenomenon and, therefore, cannot be patented.

Whether an individual can patent a living thing depends largely on how that living thing may be classified. If an invention does not occur naturally and may exist only through some work on the applicant’s part, they may be able to obtain a patent.

Examples of this concept may include that an individual:

  • Cannot patent a species of mouse that they find in their laboratory;
  • Can patent a genetically engineered mouse that they designed for use in cancer research;
  • Cannot patent a combination of bacteria that has beneficial properties, if that combination occurs elsewhere in nature; and
  • Can patent a species of bacteria that they genetically alter in order to solve a common problem, if that form does not occur naturally elsewhere.

What is Utility?

Utility is one of the standards that inventions are required to meet in order to be eligible for a patent. Inventions are said to have utility if they are capable of producing some type of specific functional benefit.

This benefit does not have to be great or even socially beneficial. So long as an invention achieves some end, it meets the utility requirement.

What Are the Types of Utility?

There are numerous different categories of utility that may be achieved by a patented product, including:

  • Beneficial utility: The invention must not be injurious to society or useless and must have a benefit for the well-being of the public;
  • Operational utility: The invention must be made in the way that is claimed by the patent applicant or inventor and must be capable of achieving useful results;
  • Specific utility: There must be a specific thing that the product does that makes it useful and a benefit to the public; and
  • Substantial utility: The invention must be a current, real-world benefit to the invention.

Does My Invention have to Work Better than Others of Its Kind?

An invention is not required to work better than other products that are on the market. An invention is not even required to work safely.

It is only required to work. So long as an invention is capable of doing what it is supposed to do, it meets the utility requirement.

The primary requirement for an invention is that the utility of a patented product is required to be beneficial and useful to society and is capable of achieving those results.

What Are Some Limits on Utility?

Although the utility requirement is not that stringent, there are limits to its scope, including:

  • Inventions that do not work or cannot work will not meet the utility requirement because they do not perform any function;
  • An inventor cannot make up a false use for a nonfunctional invention to get around the utility requirement;
    • In other words, an inventor cannot evade the utility requirement by claiming that a nonfunctional time machine could be used as a doorstop; and
  • Inventors have to know what specific use an invention has. The inventor cannot only suspect that it might be useful.

Do I Need a Patent Attorney?

If you are considering patenting one of your inventions and you have any issues, questions, or concerns regarding the utility requirement, it may be helpful to consult with a patent lawyer who can help you through the patent process.

Your patent attorney can help you navigate through the difficult process of obtaining your patent.

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