What Is a Patent?

A patent is the granting of a property right by a sovereign authority to an inventor. This grant provides the inventor exclusive rights to the patented process, design, or invention for a designated period in exchange for a comprehensive disclosure of the invention. They are a form of incorporeal right.

Government agencies typically handle and approve applications for patents. In the United States, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), which is part of the Department of Commerce, handles applications and grants approvals.

Key Takeaways

  • A patent is the granting of a property right by a sovereign authority to an inventor. 
  • A patent provides the inventor exclusive rights to the patented process, design, or invention for a certain period in exchange for a complete disclosure of the invention.
  • In June of 2018, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued its 10 millionth patent.
  • Utility patents are the most common patent issued in the United States, accounting for 90% of all issued patents.
  • Utility and plant patents are granted for 20 years, whereas design patents are granted for either 14 or 15 years, depending on when filed.

Understanding Patents

Most patents are valid for 20 years in the U.S. from the date the application was filed with the USPTO, although there are circumstances where exceptions are made to extend a patent's term. U.S. patents are only valid in the United States and U.S. Territories. If seeking protection outside of the United States, it is important to research the intellectual property rights of other nations and apply for protection with their governing authorities.

According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, a patent can be granted to any person who:

Invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent, subject to the conditions and requirements of the law.

Types of Patents

There are three types of patents available in the United States: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. Each has its own specifications and durations.

Utility Patents

Utility patents, or patents for invention, issue legal protection to people who invent a new and useful process, an article of manufacture, a machine, or a composition of matter. Utility patents are the most common type of patent, with more than 90% of patents issued by the U.S. government belonging to this category. A utility patent lasts for 20 years from the date of filing as long as maintenance fees are paid. Maintenance fees are surcharges applied to utility patent applications filed after December 12, 1980.

Design Patents

Design patents are patents issued for original, new, and ornamental designs for manufactured products. Design patents protect the design or look of something. They require the invention to which the design belongs to be original and useful. Design patents last for 15 years for applications filed after May 13, 2015. For applications filed before May 13, 2015, patents last for 14 years from the date of the filing. Maintenance fees do not apply to design patents.

Plant Patents

Plant patents go to anyone who produces, discovers, and invents a new kind of plant capable of reproduction. These patents are granted for 20 years from the date of filing and no maintenance fees apply.

Patents provide an incentive for companies or individuals to continue developing innovative products or services without the fear of infringement. For example, large pharmaceutical companies can spend billions of dollars on research and development. Without patents, their drugs and medicines could be duplicated and sold by companies that didn't research or invest the needed capital for R&D.

In other words, patents protect the intellectual property of companies to help their profitability. However, patents also serve as bragging rights for companies demonstrating their innovativeness.

How to Apply for a Patent

Before making a formal application, an applicant should research the Patent and Trademark Office's database to see if another person or institution has claimed a patent for a similar invention. The invention must be different from or an improvement upon a previous design to be considered for a patent. Applicants need to take care to maintain accurate records of the design process and the steps taken to create the invention. Enforcing the patent is up to the person or entity that applied for the patent.

To apply for a patent in the United States, the applicant submits specific documents and pays associated fees. Written documentation includes drawings, descriptions, and claims of the item to be patented. A formal oath or declaration confirming the authenticity of the invention or improvement of an existing invention must be signed and submitted by the inventor. After fee payment, the application is reviewed and either approved or denied.

Patents protect the intellectual property of companies and help ensure their profitability, but patents also serve as marketing for a company's innovation.

Patent Statistics

The USPTO receives more than 500,000 patent applications per year with just over 300,000 of them granted. The agency has over 11,000 employees, whereby approximately 75% of them are patent examiners while the remaining work in the legal and technical areas.

In June of 2018, the USPTO issued its 10 millionth patent. Many patents issued go to companies in the technology industry where Apple was granted 2,000 in 2018. Microsoft and Google were also granted patents. However, IBM typically receives more than any company in the U.S.—IBM was granted over 9,000 patents in 2017 alone as reported by CNN Business.

Examples of Patents

One of the most notable patents in the past 40 years was the personal computer filed in 1980 by Steve Jobs and three other employees of Apple Inc.

King C. Gillette patented the razor in 1904 and was dubbed a "safety razor." Garrett Morgan was granted a patent for the traffic light in 1923. The patent for the television was issued in 1930 to Philo Taylor Farnsworth for the "first television system."

At age 20, Farnsworth had created the first electric television image and went on to invent an early model of the electronic microscope.

Patents vs. Trademarks vs. Copyrights

Patents are legal rights issued to inventors to protect their inventions for a certain time, usually 20 years. They exclude others from reproducing, using, or profiting from it without the expressed permission of the patent owner. The granting authority issues a patent in exchange for permission to publish details about the invention, such as how it's made and what it's used for.

Trademarks are legal protections on words, phrases, designs, or marks that identify a specific product or service. Trademarks are intellectual property that contribute to the image and reputation of the product or service to which it belongs, and to the company to which it belongs. Beyond symbolism, a trademark can be incredibly valuable to a company, prompting some companies to include them in their valuation. Trademarks are protected forever, as long as it's in use and the holder can defend it. Examples of trademarks include the golden arch for McDonald's, the Nike swoosh, and Apple's apple.

Copyrights are legal protections on creative works of the mind, or according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office "original works of authorship." They include visual art, literary works, other writings, choreography, and software. Copyrights prevent others from reproducing the work without the expressed permission of the copyright owner. Like other intellectual property, copyrights are granted for a specific time, allowing the holder to benefit from its creation. Copyrights are granted for the maximum period of 70 years from the death of the author. Exceptions apply to works for hire and anonymous works.

Copyrights for works for hire or anonymous works are granted for 95 years from its publication or 120 years from creation, which occurs first.

Patent FAQs

What Does Patent Mean?

A patent is a legal right to an invention given to a person or entity without interference from others who wish to replicate, use, or sell it. Patents are granted by governing authorities and have a time limit, usually 20 years.

What Are Examples of Patents?

Examples of historic patented inventions include common products that we use daily, including the telephone, dishwasher, and lightbulb. Ones without expired protection include Boeing's Water Harvesting system, Disney's method for reproducing human actions with robots, and Google's medical response drone.

What Are the 3 Types of Patents?

The three types of patents are utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. Utility patents are issued for inventions that are novel and useful. Design patents protect the design or image of a product. Plant patents are issued to applicants for plants that can reproduce.

How Much Is a Patent?

Patent costs vary according to the type of patent applied for and are based on several other factors, such as the type of applicant, provisional or nonprovisional status, and associated fees—search fees, examination fees, post-allowance fees, and more. If using the services of an attorney, you can expect costs to range from approximately $5,000 to more than $20,000.

How Long Does a Patent Last?

Utility and plant patents last for 20 years from the date of filing, while design patents last for 15 years if filed after May 13, 2015, or 14 years if filed before May 13, 2015.

The Bottom Line

Patents are legal rights granted to inventors for their creations. Government divisions, such as the United States Patent and Trademark Office issue patents and other intellectual property rights to U.S. citizens. Patent rights give exclusive rights to use, replicate, or sell the protected invention without interference from others who wish to do the same. In exchange, the issuing authority is granted the right to publish the details of the invention.

Patents are granted for a limited time, such as 20 years from the date of filing for plant and utility patents and 14 or 15 years for design patents. Patents issued in the United States only offer protection within the U.S. To extend protection in other nations, the applicant must apply with the governing authority of that nation.