A patent is a written document that gives right of property to an inventor over a product or process that offers a new technical solution to a problem.

There are three types of patents:

  1. Utility Patents.
  2. Design Patents.
  3. Plant Patents.   

Utility patents

Utility patents protect new and useful inventions or improvements to existing ones. A utility patent can cover a process, a machine, or a composition of matter. This patent essentially helps people learn how to use a new machine, process, or system. 

In order to qualify for a utility patent, an inventor must have created a new product or process that is not already on the market. The subject matter of a utility patent must be useful to people in the present. This strand of utility can cover new biological or chemical formulas, processes, or procedures.

Utility patents are the strongest forms of protection, but they can be difficult to obtain. It also typically takes 2-3 years to receive a utility patent. Once obtained, the applicant may also be able to exclude others from using, manufacturing, or selling their invention for twenty years hence utility patents are granted for a minimum of twenty years, from the date of filing.

Utility patents are the most common type of patents, accounting for 90% of the total issued in the United States. There are over eleven million of these issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A utility patent has a claims section and can be very broad, depending on the claim language. Because of their broad scope, they are the most common type of patent.

In applying for a utility patent, you can have provisional utility or non-provisional utility applications. A provisional utility application is filed with the USPTO and protects an invention for 12 months before a formal patent application is filed. The idea is to protect an invention while securing time for an inventor to refine the invention and test commercial validity before embarking on the time-consuming and costly process of filing a formal application. The 12-month period cannot be extended and upon its effluxion, the applicant has to apply for a non-provisional utility application or forfeit securing patent protection for the invention. Because of its brief nature, it is less costly than a formal patent application.

A non-provisional utility application is the standard utility patent application. The key difference between a provisional utility application and a non-provisional utility application is that the former never matures into a patent, while the latter (non-provisional utility applications) are examined and if allowable, can become an issued patent.

Design patents

A design patent protects ornamental features or the look of an object, rather than its function. It protects only the appearance of the article and not the structural or utilitarian features of the object. For instance, an application for a design patent for a computer mouse would cover the shape of the device rather than its functionality. For the patent to be granted, the product must be original and non-obvious, and must have a distinct design. While the process for obtaining a design patent is similar to that of obtaining a utility patent, the application process is shorter and therefore will usually cost less than a utility patent.

However, the application process for a design patent but the process is still long and complex. In addition to clear and detailed drawings, applicants must also submit several angles of their invention to the USPTO. In some cases, black and white photographs may be substituted for drawings, but only if they’re the only practical medium for illustrating the invention. 

A design patent is awarded when a new, non-obvious design can protect an item. You cannot obtain a design patent if your design has been copied from another designer or company. Unlike utility patents, design patents protect the appearance of a product, but do not protect its functionality. 

According to the USPTO, design patents last for 15 years for applications filed after May 13, 2015. For applications filed before May 13, 2015, patents last for 14 years from the date of the filing.

Design patents don’t require maintenance fees.

Plant patents

A plant patent protects a new variety of asexually reproducing plant. Asexual reproduction has been defined by the USPTO to as the propagation of a plant without the use of fertilized seeds to assure an exact genetic copy of the plant being reproduced. 

Patents on plants can cover many different methods of propagation. For example, a plant patent can cover a method of replanting a plant without using seeds. In addition, a plant patent can cover methods of propagation without seeds, such as layering, budding, and grafting. 

A plant patent can protect new varieties of plants, including hybrids and sports, seedlings, mutants, and cultivars. The new variety must be novel and distinct from others to qualify. This patent entitles the owner to exclude others from producing, using, or selling the plant.  

There are many ways to use plant patents. A plant patent may protect a genetically modified orange tree that produces fruit twice as large as normal citrus fruits. Plant patents can cover both the design and functionality of an orange tree. For instance, a genetically altered orange tree might be eligible for a utility patent covering the process of creating the fruit. It may also receive a plant patent for aesthetic purposes.

Plant patents, however, are rarely granted. They are not as common as design and utility patents, and make up only a small portion of all patents issued by the USPTO. Moreover, they will only cover plants that reproduce and are capable of reproducing themselves.

A plant patent plant typically includes drawings of the plant and details of its characteristics. Plant patents are published 18 months after filing and last for 20 years from the date of filing the application and like design patents, they do not require any maintenance fees.

Determining the right Patent Application

The three types of patents differ in the scope of protection that each type provides. When you are thinking about a patent application, you should consider whether you need a utility patent or a design patent.

A utility patent protects an invention’s functionality, while a design patent protects the aesthetic appearance of an object. If you’re looking for a patent for a new product, a utility patent may be your best bet.

Additionally, there are instances in which utility and design patents may be applied for simultaneously. This happens usually in instances where a person invents an object and wants to patent both the functional features and the design of the object.

If you’re unsure about which to apply for, consider consulting an attorney before filing the patent application. In most cases, it is best to file a design patent first before filing for a utility patent. However, the final decision between utility and design patents will likely come during the patent evaluation process.