Qualifying for a Patent

A patent is a document issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) that grants a monopoly for a limited period of time on the manufacture, use, and sale of an invention. These exclusive rights last between 14 and 20 years, depending on the type of invention.

What types of inventions can be patented?

The PTO issues three different kinds of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents.

To qualify for a utility patent -- by far the most common type -- an invention must be:

  • A process or method for producing a useful, concrete, and tangible result (such as a genetic engineering procedure, an investment strategy, computer software, or a process for conducting e-commerce on the Internet)
  • A machine (usually something with moving parts or circuitry, such as a cigarette lighter, sewage treatment system, laser, or photocopier)
  • An article of manufacture (such as an eraser, tire, transistor, or hand tool)
  • A composition of matter (such as a chemical composition, drug, soap, or genetically altered life-form)
  • An improvement of an invention that fits within one of the first four categories.

Often, an invention will fall into more than one category. For instance, a laser can usually be described as both a process (the steps necessary to produce the laser beam) and a machine (a device that implements the steps to produce the laser beam). Regardless of the number of categories into which a particular invention fits, it can receive only one utility patent.

If an invention fits into one of the categories described above, it is known as "statutory subject matter" and has passed the first test in qualifying for a patent. But an inventor's creation must overcome several additional hurdles before the PTO will issue a patent. The invention must also:

  • Have some utility, no matter how trivial
  • Be novel (that is, it must be different from all previous inventions in some important way)
  • Be nonobvious (a surprising and significant development) to somebody who understands the technical field of the invention

For design patents, the law requires that the design be novel, nonobvious, and nonfunctional. For example, a new shape for a car fender, bottle, or flashlight that doesn't improve its functionality would qualify.

Finally, plants may qualify for a patent if they are both novel and nonobvious. Plant patents are issued less frequently than any other type of patent.

More Examples of Patentable Subject Matter
The following items are just some of the things that might qualify for patent protection: biological inventions; business methods; carpet designs; new chemical formulas, processes, or procedures; clothing accessories and designs; computer hardware and peripherals; computer software; containers; cosmetics; decorative hardware; e-commerce techniques; electrical inventions; electronic circuits; fabrics and fabric designs; food inventions; furniture design; games (board, box, and instructions); housewares; Internet innovations; jewelry; laser light shows; machines; magic tricks or techniques; mechanical inventions; medical accessories and devices; medicines; musical instruments; odors; plants; recreational gear; and sporting goods (designs and equipment).