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Patents: About

Guide to searching among United States and foreign patents (prior art) to determine whether an idea can be patented.

What is a Patent? How Does It Differ from a Trademark or a Copyright?

What is a Trademark? What is a Copyright?

A trademark simply indicates the origin of goods or services available on the market.  A trademark can be a logo, name, slogan or other device such as musical tones or product shape.  Unlike patents, trademarks are not limited in duration.  They are valid as long as the trademark continues to be used in commerce.  Similar to patents, trademarks are also administered by the USPTO.  Further information about United States trademarks is found on trademarks section of the USPTO website.

A copyright protects the intellectual content of artistic, literary and musical works such as a book, manuscript, musical score or photograph.  See What Does Copyright Protect?  Copyrights are registered with the United States Copyright Office.

Trade secrets are a fourth informal area of intellectual property protection whereby the owner of information valuable to his or her company takes measures to shield this information from competitors.  These can include formulas and recipes, business strategies, marketing plans, customer pricing and sales data.

For further explanation, watch the USPTO video Basic Facts: Trademarks, Patents and Copyrights.

What is a Patent?

A patent gives its owner the legal exclusive right to his or her invention for a limited period of time.  After the term of a patent expires, the technology become public domain to benefit of society. A patent is granted by a country's intellectual property office which in the United States is the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) which is a division of the United States Department of Commerce.  According to the United States Constitution, a patent is defined as-

"any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new or useful improvement thereof"

In order for an invention to be considered patentable, it must meet all three of the following criteria-

  • Novel, that is, not previously patent or described elsewhere in the world
  • Unobvious to a person having ordinary skill in the area of technology related to the invention
  • Useful to humankind

The USPTO grants three different types of patents-

  • Utility Patent - protects new useful processes, machines, products of manufacture and compositions of matter and lasts 20 years from the filing date (the USPTO assigns all numerical numbers to this type of patent, ex. 10,610,748)
  • Design Patent - protects the new ornamental design or appearance of articles of manufacture and lasts 15 years from the day it is granted (these patents are given a number preceded by the letter D, ex. D793,032)  *Examples of design patents include the shape of Apple products such as the iPhone and jewelry settings.
  • Plant Patent - is granted to new, asexually reproduced plants and lasts 20 years from the filing date (this type of patent is identifiable by a number preceded by PP, ex. PP28,655)

Everything one needs to know about United States patents is contained in the USPTO website.  Make sure you read the General Information Concerning Patents section of the website to understand patent basics.

Patent Protection: What a patent is, what it protects, and how one is obtained in the United States

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