Patent Basics: Everything You Need To Know

Patent basics cover the ins and outs of obtaining intellectual property protection for a unique invention.3 min read

Patent basics cover the ins and outs of obtaining intellectual property protection for a unique invention. Patent protection is a federal property right granted to inventors. It prevents others from using, importing, making, or selling the invention for a specific number of years in exchange for public disclosure of the details of the invention.

What Can Be Patented?

In the United States, inventions can be patented only if they are both novel and useful. They must consist of either a composition of matter, manufactured item, machine, or process. Under U.S. patent law, novelty means that the invention cannot have been previously sold to the public, used in public, patented, or described in publication, either by the inventor or by another inventor with a similar invention. Public disclosed inventions are called prior art.

Unlike in other countries, where appearance in prior art prevents a patent from being granted, the U.S. lets inventors apply for and obtain a patent within 12 months of a publication about the invention. This grace period begins on the exact date the information about the invention became publicly available. For example, if an academic journal with an article about the invention is posted online before the print date, the online publication date starts the clock to apply for a patent. Describing the invention to those who have signed confidentiality agreements is not considered public disclosure.

The invention must also pass the usefulness test. This means that the item has a legal purpose and works as described in the patent application.

Finally, patented inventions must be nonobvious. This means the idea could not be easily thought of by a person with typical skill and knowledge in the industry in question.

What Are the Different Types of Patents?

Types of patent protection in the U.S. include:

  • Utility patents, the most common type, are granted for the types of inventions described in the above section. These patent rights are good for 20 years from the date the application was filed.
  • Design patents, which are good for 14 years, protect a novel ornamental design of a manufactured item.
  • Plant patents, also good for 20 years, are granted to those who invent or find and asexually reproduce a new plant variety.

What Are the Parts of a Patent Application?

Most patent applications are comprised of drawings, specification, and claims. Drawings are diagrams or figures that help others understand your invention. These could be screenshots of a software interface, drawings of an object, flow charts, and other types of graphics.

The specification is a detailed description of your invention designed to accompany the drawings. It should be comprehensive enough that a person with ordinary skill in your industry would be able to recreate the invention without ambiguity.