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Patents: Overview

What is a Patent?

A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

  • The term of a new patent is generally 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed in the United States, but there are special cases. 
  • It is only valid in the country in which it was issued. So, U.S. patent grants are effective only within the United States, U.S. territories, and U.S. possessions. 
  • A patent confers the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention.
  • Once a U.S. patent is issued, the patentee must enforce the patent without aid of the USPTO.

Types of Patents

  1. Utility patents -  (most common) - granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine,  article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof;
  2. Design patents - (protects appearance) - granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture
  3. Plant patents - granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.

​Credit: United States Patent and Trademark Office (October 2015). General information concerning patents. Retrieved from http://www.uspto.gov

What is Patentable?

An invention that is: 

  • Novel: at least one significant part of the invention must be completely new, never been described, or used for the same purpose, never made public, before the date the application was filed.
  • Useful: invention should have a useful purpose
  • Non-obvious: invention must be so different from anything that had been used or described before, so that it is not obvious to an expert in that field.

Engineering Librarian

Sylvia Jones's picture
Sylvia Jones

What Cannot Be Patented?

  • Abstract ideas
  • Laws of nature
  • Physical phenomena
  • Literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works (they can be copyrighted)
  • Inventions that are:
    • Not useful
    • Offensive to public morality