President George Washington signed the first American patent granted to Samuel Hopkins in 1790 for a product used to manufacture fertilizer. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office now recognizes more than six million patents. A legal patent protects the use of the invention by other Americans and residents of countries recognizing international patent laws.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), under direction of the Department of Commerce, registers patents for inventions and improvements on inventions. Common processes and general ideas cannot be patented. To register a patent, the inventor must submit a process, article, method, composition, plant or machine that is novel, has some utility or function and has a non-obvious quality to experts in the inventor's field. Inventors must obtain a patent within one year of the initial disclosure of the invention or others can freely use the invention without permission or payment to the inventor.
Most patents assigned by the USPTO come under the heading of design patents. Inventors need not show the invention has any utility when applying for a design patent. This patent category requires only that the object display unique visual characteristics and it must display the design features during use. The USPTO recognized 33 classifications of design patents as of 2012, including edible products, clothing and apparel, household furnishings, tools and hardware, and packages and containers for goods produced for manufacture or sale. Jewelry, photography and optical equipment, games, toys, sporting goods and cosmetics also qualify for design patents. Household items such as washing machines and dryers, lighting, and heating and cooling equipment come within the guidelines of this patent category, as do musical instruments and office supplies, teaching and art materials and fishing equipment.
Plant patents provide protection to gardeners, plant breeders and growers working to invent or discover cultivated plants, including plants "which are stable and reproduced by asexual reproduction." The patent process for plants requires the inventor to show stability of the plant, and he must take the time to create clones of the plant to demonstrate that the copy has the same characteristics as the original plant. Patent law protects seedlings, hybrids and mutant plants. Examples of plant patents include root cuttings, runners, tissue culture, some seeds, plant layering and plant division. Macro fungi and algae also qualify for this type of patent protection.
Inventions that use a process or have unique composition of matter qualify for utility patents. Examples of process patents include a copy machine and an ingredient to speed concrete drying. Apparatuses and products also fall under this patent category. A well-known patent demonstrating an apparatus is the artificial heart valve. The microwave clothes dryer holds a utility patent since the microwaving process qualifies as a utility for the manner in which the machine dries clothes, as opposed to the exterior style and decoration of a clothes dryer that holds a design patent. Objects often hold more than one patent protection. Examples of other utility patents include the working components of cell phones, televisions and digital recorders.