If you have reinvented the wheel, built a better mousetrap or created some other innovative or useful object, you may be thinking about how to promote your invention to the general public. Obtaining one or more patents for your invention provides legal protection against infringement by competitors. You may apply for a patent on your own. However, many inventors work with an attorney or use online legal documentation services to obtain patent protection.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office recognizes three types of patents: utility patents, design patents and plant patents. Each of these three types of patents protects an original or substantially improved item or a process that can be perceived by one or more of the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell or taste. The USPTO grants the patent holder the right to prevent anyone else from manufacturing, selling or importing the invention for a specified period, and in turn requires the patent holder to fully disclose the invention or improvement to the public.
Utility patents are what many people associate with the term "patent" — legal protection for gadgets or processes that perform new functions or that significantly improve the way a function is performed. A utility patent application may be provisional or nonprovisional. A provisional patent allows an individual to establish a filing date that stands for 12 months while the much more complex nonprovisional patent application is being prepared. Since June 8, 1995, the duration for nonprovisional patents is 20 years after the first patent application date. A patent holder must pay maintenance fees during the life of a utility patent.
Design patents legally protect original ornamental design for manufactured objects. Design patents may refer to an item's shape or to ornamentation applied to an item, or a combination of both. Design patents differ from trademarks in that design patents refer to features that cannot be separated from the item itself. For example, if you design a greeting card that has a conventional square shape, but which includes original copy and artwork, you could apply for a copyright. However, if you designed a greeting card that unfolded into a three-dimensional object, you might apply for a design patent. Design patents last for 14 years after the patent was granted, but no maintenance fees are required.
Plant patents protect the rights of patent holders who discover, invent or asexually produce a new plant species or variety. The USPTO recognizes hybrid plants, algae, fungi and mutants as potential subjects for plant patents; bacteria are not recognized. Plant discoveries must be made within a cultivated area to be eligible for a plant patent. Plant patents granted or in effect after June 5, 1995 last for 20 years after the date of the patent application. Patent holders must pay maintenance fees during the life of the patent.