What Types of Patents Are Available to Inventors?

The United States currently grants four types of patents:  (1)  Utility, (2) Plant, (3) Design, and (4) Covered Business Method.  Read on to learn how they differ.

What is a Utility Patent?

Utility patents cover the broad range of possible inventions, including:

  • A process or method  (e.g., computer software)
  • A machine (e.g., printer)
  • An article of manufacture (e.g., a pencil)
  • A composition  of matter (e.g., a pharmaceutical product)
  • An improvement of the prior four types

A utility patent grants you the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling your invention for a limited period of time—typically 20 years from the date you file your patent application.

Did you know?

  • The first utility patent was granted on July 31, 1790, to Samuel Hopkins for his invention of “Making Pot and Pearl Ashes,” a process to make “potash,” a type of salt commonly used in fertilizers.
  • In 1880, Thomas Edison patented the “electric lamp,” most readily associated with his infamous light bulb.  This is an example of an article of manufacture.
  • A century later, in 1999, the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca received a patent for a strong and widely distributed treatment for acid reflux issues we all know as Nexium, “the purple pill.”  This is an example of a composition of matter.

What is a Design Patent?

Design patents cover a smaller range of innovation, and typically are limited to new, original, and ornamental designs for an article of manufacture. The patent protection applies only to the aesthetic value of the item. For example, a design patent may be issued for a particular bottle shape for soda or juice or an ornamental design for eyeglass frames. They do not cover the underlying invention, such as the beverage formula or the lenses. Unlike utility patents, a design patent lasts for 14 years from the date it is issued, not the date the application was filed.

Did you know?

  • The first design patent was granted on January 1, 1843 to George Bruce for a new font, or typeface, that was used in a casting machine to print letters.
  • In 1885, the U.S. Patent Office granted Augusta Bartholdi a design patent for the design of his most famous sculpture, the Statute of Liberty.
  • The original Coca Cola glass soda bottle was first protected by a design patent issued in 1915.

What is a Plant Patent?

Plant patents cover a very specific type of invention:  new varieties of plants that are created through asexual reproduction, like grafting or cutting, or genetic engineering. As such, there is a distinction between “created” plants and “wild” uncultivated plants. The “created” plant variety is a protectable invention, whereas “wild” plants freely occurring in nature cannot be “owned” by anyone. As with utility patents, a plant patent lasts for 20 years from the date you filed your patent application.

Did you know?

  • The first plant patent was granted in 1931 to Henry Bosenberg for a climbing, ever-blooming rose.
  • In 2013, Driscoll Strawberry Associates received a patent for a new type of strawberry plant that is distinct from others given its high yield, dark red fruit color, and large size yet tempered sweetness.  They named it the “Drisstrawthirty.”
  • More recently, on June 19, 2014, Monsanto Co. patented a variety of soybean. Soybeans, and more specific soybean oil, is widely used in products such as cooking oil and salad dressings.

What is a Covered Business Method Patent?

This is a highly debated and unsettled area of patent law. Generally speaking, though, covered business method patents—often referred to simply as CBMs or business method patents—are for a particular method, apparatus, or operation that is used in the practice, administration, or management of a financial product or service.  Most relate to e-commerce, financial data processing, and cost/price determination models. To be eligible for patent protection, the claimed business method must have useful, concrete, and tangible results. They are different from utility patents in that they don’t cover technological inventions.  

Did you know?

  • Covered Business Method patents first originated in Japan with the U.S. following suit in the late 1990s.
  • In 1998, Priceline received a patent for its “Reverse Auction” system. This system allows a customer to participate in an auction for products or services not yet available, such as airline tickets. Once the products, in this case plane tickets, become available, the system places the bid.
  • One year later, Amazon patented its famous “1-Click” ordering system in 1999. The “1-Click” system allows a repeat customer to allow Amazon to access the user’s credit, billing, and shipping information and complete a transaction without requiring extra effort from the customer.

Make sure you patent your invention correctly by seeking the right type of patent!