Under U.S. Code Title 35, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issues three different types of patents: utility patent, design patent, and plant patent. In order to be patentable, an invention must be novel, nonobvious, and useful.

Each type of patent has its own eligibility requirements to be a patentable subject matter. However, it’s possible for one invention to potentially have more than one type of patent available for it. For example, if an inventor invents a machine and wishes to patent both the functional features and the design of the machine, the inventor can apply for a utility patent to protect the constructional feature and a design patent to protect the aesthetic of the machine.

Utility Patents

A utility patent is the most common type of patent that people seek. It covers processes, compositions of matter, machines, and manufacturers that are new and useful. The utility patent can also be obtained for new and useful improvements to existing processes, compositions of matter, machines, and manufacturers. Processes refer to any acts or methods of doing something, usually involving industrial or technical processes. Compositions of matter are basically chemical compositions, which can include a mixture of ingredients or new chemical compounds. Machines include things that are generally defined as a machine, such as a computer, while manufacturers are defined as goods that are manufactured or made. Also, utility patents include computer software, investment strategy, medical equipment, tools, chemical compositions, genetically altered life forms, and improvements.

Owners of utility patents are allowed to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention for 20 years from the date the patent application is filed. Maintenance fees must be paid for this type of patent, making it more expensive than a design patent. Although utility patents offer broad protection against potentially competing inventions, it can take 2-3 years to receive a utility patent.

Design Patents

Design patents are issued in connection with a new, original, and ornamental design that is contained within or applied to something that is manufactured. Design patents are less expensive and easier to obtain than utility patents. To protect the functional or structural features of an object, a person must also file for a utility patent.

The design patent allows the owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the patented design for 14 years from the date the patent is granted. There are no maintenance fees for the design patent.

Plant Patents

Plant patents are issued for the discovery or invention of new and distinct asexually reproducing plants. A few requirements to obtain this type of patent are that the plant should not be a tuber-propagated plant (i.e. an Irish potato), the plant should not be found in an uncultivated state, and the plant should be asexually reproduced. Asexual reproduction means that instead of being reproduced with seed, the plant is reproduced by grafting or cutting the plant. Plant patents require asexual reproduction because it’s proof that the patent applicant can reproduce the plant.

Like the utility patent, the plant patent holder can exclude others from making, using, or selling the plant for up to 20 years from the date the owner files a patent application. Like design patents, plant patents need not be kept up with maintenance fee payments.

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