A U.S. patent gives inventors the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale or selling their inventions in the United States for a term ranging from 14 to 20 years. To qualify for patent protection, an invention must demonstrate to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that the invention satisfies three primary requirements.
When an inventor submits a patent application, the PTO reviews it to determine whether the invention is useful, whether it is not substantially similar to prior inventions and whether it is not an obvious extension of prior inventions. If the invention satisfies these three requirements, the PTO may issue a patent certificate.
To qualify for a patent, a process, machine or manufactured invention must be useful. This utility requirement means that an invention must have a positive, real-world application. Although most inventions satisfy the utility requirement, some do not. For example, a drug that has no proven effectiveness cannot be patented. Dangerous inventions that have no beneficial applications also cannot be patented. The utility requirement applies only to utility patents. Utility is not a requirement for patents for designs or plants.
An invention that is substantially similar to a previously known invention cannot be patented. Existing inventions are known as prior art. In patent applications, inventors must show that their inventions are not too similar to the prior art. If a substantially similar invention was used in public or described in a published document more than one year before the filing date of the inventor’s patent application, the invention will not meet the novelty requirement. For example, an inventor cannot receive a U.S. patent for an invention that has been patented in another country by a different inventor.
An invention will not qualify for a patent if it is an obvious extension of existing inventions. Federal patent laws would prohibit a patent for an invention that is so similar to the prior art that the invention would have been “obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art.” Meeting the nonobviousness requirement is problematic for many inventors seeking a patent, particularly for inventions that combine commonly used elements. Determining whether an invention satisfies the nonobviousness requirement is often complex. A patent applicant must convince the patent examiner that the invention would not be obvious to an average scientist, engineer or technician in the invention’s field.