Patents are exclusive rights granted to inventors that exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention. There are three categories of patents in the US: utility patents, design patents and plant patents.
These protect any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter. A utility patent often protects how a device operates, including its inner workings and mechanisms. Utility patents last 20 years from the date of filing. Most US patents are utility patents.
A design patent protects the ornamental design of a functional item, such as jewelry or furniture. Design patents last 15 years from the date of filing.
These cover plants with unique characteristics from other known forms of the same genus/species in their class or subclass. A plant patent refers to plants that are novel and distinctive in character and capable of reproducing their kind. Therefore, a plant patent protects only the particular variety. Plant patents last 20 years from the date of filing.
Why knowing the types of patents is important?
Knowing the types of patents can help you understand which patent is applicable to your invention. It also helps you understand how long your patent will last and what protection it provides.
It is also helpful to understand that certain categories of ideas cannot be patented. For example, living organisms or natural phenomena, abstract ideas and laws of nature are not patentable. However, using one of these often CAN be patented.
Maintenance of patents
Once a US patent is registered, periodic ‘maintenance fees’ need to be paid to the Patent Office.
Interestingly, the patent type determines whether or not maintenance fees need to be paid.
US utility patents do require maintenance fees in order to keep the patent active, while plant and design patents do not.
The maintenance fees for US utility patents are due approximately 4, 8 and 12 years after registration.