What Are the Different Types of Patents?

By Michelle Labbe
Patents protect your inventions and bright ideas by excluding others from copying them.

matte lightbulb image by Igor Zhorov from Fotolia.com

If you've come up with an exciting new invention or innovation sure to revolutionize the world, or even just modify it a little bit, you'll want to apply for a patent. In the United States, the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) is in charge of granting patents. You can apply for one by filing a written application with the appropriate patent office. Patents fall into three different categories: utility patents, plant patents and design patents.

Utility Patents

The PTO issues utility patents for inventions such as new processes, manufactures, machines, compositions of matter or improvements and innovations on existing inventions. Utility patents grant the owner the right to deny others the right to manufacture, sell or use the invention for a period of twenty years from the date of filing. This term period is subject to payment of maintenance fees.

Utility patents are the most common type of patent by far. Over 90% of patents the PTO has issued in recent years have been utility patents.

Plant Patents

Plant patents are issued for the discovery and reproduction of new varieties or cultivars of vegetation. These varieties must be deemed new, useful and non-obvious by the PTO to receive a patent. This patent permits the owner to exclude others from making, using or selling the plant for a period of twenty years after the date the patent application is filed. Plants must be deliberately cultivated to be patented, and may not be tubers (such as potatoes or Jerusalem artichokes) or uncultivated wild seedlings.

Unlike utility patents, plant patents are not subject to payment of maintenance fees.

Design Patents

A design patent covers the invention of a new, original and ornamental design for a manufactured item such as an item of clothing or a piece of furniture. Design patents cover only the look of an item, not the way it is used. The duration of this patent is shorter, granting the owner to exclude others from usage rights for fourteen years rather than twenty. Design patents are not subject to payment of maintenance fees.

Design and utility patents may be granted for the same item if the owner can claim invention of both its use and look. The PTO does not grant patents to items that have a design based primarily on the item's function.

About the Author

Michelle Labbe has been writing online and for print since 2004. Her work has appeared in the online journals Reflection's Edge and Cabinet des Fées as well as in Harvard Book Store's anthology, "Michrochondria." She is pursuing a Master of Arts in publishing and writing at Emerson College.

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