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Understanding the basics of patents

Successfully securing a patent can be important to your business or simply to your idea. In general, a patent is when the government grants a property right, which prevents others from selling, using or making a particular invention for a certain period of time. Patents protect certain types of intellectual property. Part of the patent process includes a public disclosure of the invention being patented.

Patents may be applied for by the actual inventor but it is important to first understand what can be patented. Generally, patents are granted for inventions that are both useful and nonobvious. There are three kinds of patents, including utility patents, plant patents and design patents. A non-obvious, new and useful machine, process, composition, article of manufacture, or matter or improvement on any of the preceding four categories may be granted a patent. Additionally, ornamental design on an article of manufacture or certain plant varieties based on a design or plant patent may also enjoy patent protection.

Certain categories cannot be patented, including physical phenomena, laws of nature and abstract ideas. Inventions that are offensive to public morality or are not useful, will also not receive patent protection. Artistic works, such as literary, dramatic, musical and artistic works, receive copyright protection rather than patent protection.

The process of applying for, and securing, a patent can sometimes be complex. To receive a patent, the invention must be presented by the inventor in the patent application in clear and definitive terms, adequately described and of use to one of ordinary skill in the art. Inventions must also be novel to receive patent protection. In general, utility and plant patents are in force for 20 years and design patents are in force for 14 years, although maintenance fees may apply in certain situations.

To determine if an invention is patentable, a thorough patentability search of already patented inventions should be conducted. As it is useful to have a patent application strategy, a patent search strategy may also be helpful. While securing a patent can be important, it can also be a complex process which is why a thorough knowledge, familiarity and understanding of the process, and terminology, are important for any individual seeking a patent.

Source: United States Patent and Trademark Office, "Patents," accessed on Jan. 20, 2015

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