A patent is a government-recognized right in a new, useful, non-obvious solution to a technical problem. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office grants an inventor the right exclude others from using his invention for a set period of time. U.S. patents are granted for four types of discoveries/inventions: machines, manmade products, compositions of matter, and processing methods.

There are three categories of patents: utility patents, design patents and plant patents. Utility patents are for new processes, composition of matter, machines, or chemicals, or an improvement of these. A design patent is granted for the overall unique appearance of a product (but not its function) or any design improvement. Plant patents are granted for new inventions in plants and their reproduction, such as for the invention of a hybrid plant. Examples of patentable ideas are a new car engine, clothing, a new medical treatment, or computer software. Utility and plant patents are for twenty years, design patent for fourteen.

Patent Filings 1987-2007

In the U.S., the inventor is the only person who can apply for and receive a patent. During the patent period, a patent holder has the exclusive right to sell the patented object or process and to sell or license the patent rights. No other person is allowed to make, sell, offer to sell, or import the patented object during this period. In exchange for a patent, an inventor must fully disclose the details of the patent to public in a patent application.

A patent does not cover artistic endeavors such as literary and dramatic works, which are governed by copyright law. A patent does not cover trade names, symbols, or slogans, which are governed by trademark law. Laws of nature and abstract ideas cannot be patented.

Patent Application

Within one year of disclosing the details of an invention to the public, an inventor must apply for a patent. Before applying with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, an inventor and/or his attorney perform a preliminary search to determine if the invention has already been patented. The patent application must include a detailed description of the invention, and if not obvious, how the invention is useful. The written description of the patent is called the patent specification. The patent specification must disclose the best way to make or use the invention (the “best mode”). The Patent Office reviews the application and will grant a patent if the invention meet the standards of patentability — that is, if the invention is a new, nonobvious, useful invention.

How Patent Rights are Protected

Issues of enforcement or infringement of patent rights are often privately litigated. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office does not enforce patent rights. However, in lieu of federal suit, many patent holders settle their suit, licensing the patent in exchange for compensation. If a suit is pursued, the patent holder may seek monetary compensation for infringement and for an injunction preventing the infringer from continued infringement. However, after a patent period has expired, the patent is available for anyone in the public to exploit.


Patents are government-granted rights to use, sale, or license the rights of an invention. A patent applicant must prove that his invention is new, nonobvious, and serves a useful purpose. The invention must be adequately detailed in a patent application. Due to the cost of litigation, suits for patent infringement are often settled. An infringer may be held liable for damages, attorney fees and court costs, and enjoined from using the patent.