A patent is designed to protect concrete forms of intellectual property -- such as inventions and machines -- as well as designs for inventions. Patent-seekers should register their patents through the United States Patent and Trademark Office. If the patent is granted, you will have the right to reproduce and profit from your intellectual property for a limited period of time.
Types of Patents
The U.S PTO offers three types of patents. Utility patents protect new inventions, machines and processes; these patents are the most commonly sought patents. Plant patents are reserved for newly discovered plants that the discoverer has caused to asexually reproduce. Both utility and plant patents are issued for a period of 20 years. Design patents are issued for designs of potential inventions and are issued for a period of 14 years. After they expire, patents cannot be renewed.
All patents must be novel and must not be patented anywhere else in the world. In most cases, only the creator can patent something, but some universities and corporations have contracts requiring employees to give them patent rights. Patents must also be nonobvious. The U.S. PTO explains that this means that the patented item is not something that is obvious to other experts in the field; it must represent some degree of ingenuity. Utility patents must also be useful. Inventions that can't actually be used -- for example, a time machine -- are not considered useful. Design patents must represent an item that could be useful. For example, a design for a flying car would only qualify if the car was designed to actually work. The car couldn't just have wings.
A patent search can help you determine if the item you're interested in patenting can actually obtain a patent. The U.S. PTO provides full text information on items patented since 1970, and makes images available of all items patented since 1790. If an item is patented that is very similar to the item you wish to patent, you may be unable to obtain a patent.
You must fill out a patent application for the type of patent you are seeking and file it with the U.S. PTO. When your patent is accepted, you will have sole rights to the item for the patent period. The office charges maintenance fees on patents every few years. After your patent expires, others may be able to make generic versions of your patented item.