What Is a Utility Patent?

A utility patent is a patent that covers the creation of a new or improved—and useful—product, process, or machine. A utility patent, also known as a "patent for invention," prohibits other individuals or companies from making, using, or selling the invention without authorization. When most people refer to a patent, they are most likely referring to a utility patent.

Understanding Utility Patents

Utility patents are very valuable assets because they give inventors exclusive commercial rights to producing and utilizing the latest technology. In turn, utility patents are difficult to obtain. For one, they are hard to write, the process may be time consuming and expensive to undertake, and their complexity may make them difficult to understand.

Utility patents cover the creation of a new or improved—and useful—product, process, or machine and give its inventor exclusive commercial rights to it for 20 years.

The nature of a utility patent is covered in Title 35, Part II, Chapter 10, Subsection 101 of the United States Code, which defines it as any invention for which a patent may be obtained. It reads: "Whoever 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 therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title."

Utility patents are issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and last for up to 20 years. However, the patent holder may have to pay maintenance fees over that time period. Individuals who want to search whether a patent for an idea they have already exists can use the USPTO's patent search feature. Once a utility patent has been issued, inventors have the right to stop others from manufacturing, using, or selling their invention.

For many, the first step in obtaining a utility patent, aside from a unique idea, is enlisting a patent attorney or agent. They can guide an inventor through the complex utility patent filing process. The next step may be hiring a technical illustrator to draft patent drawings. When all the pieces are compiled, a filing may be made. Depending on the complexity of the invention, filing costs can range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.

Utility Patents vs. Other Patents

A product protected by a utility patent may also obtain a design patent, which safeguards its unique visual elements and requires only drawings of a design accompanied by limited text. Design patents last for 14 to 15 years from the date of filing and can be gotten on their own. To get both a utility patent and a design patent, remember that the invention must be useful and serve some practical purpose, not just decoration.

A third type of patent available is called a plant patent, and it is acquired by someone who has discovered or created a new variety of plant. It lasts 20 years from the date of filing and requires no maintenance fees.  Plant patents are considerably fewer than utility or design patents.

Examples of Utility Patents

Utility patents, the most common type issued by the USPTO, apply to a broad range of inventions, including:

  • Machines (e.g. something composed of moving parts, such as engines or computers)
  • Articles of manufacture (e.g. brooms, candleholders)
  • Processes (e.g. business processes, software)
  • Compositions of matter (e.g. pharmaceuticals) 

According to the USPTO, more than 90% of all patents granted are utility patents.