A patent gives the owner of some piece of intellectual property the right to be the exclusive maker or seller of that product or the exclusive owner of a patented process. Essentially, a patent precludes other from making the same product or using the same process that is covered under the patent.
Patents cover a specific product or process (i.e. manufacturing process) that is covered under a specific patent. Patents can cover many different types of processes and products, ranging from utility patents to design patents and plant patents. Each patent is aimed at giving the creator the right to be the exclusive owner, seller, distributor and producer of their patented product.
A Utility Patent is given to the inventor of a specific process, a unique machine or method of manufacturing that is considered "new and non-obvious". The utility patent also applies to inventions that improve on an existing product or process in a meaningful way that truly differentiates the new product from the old product. Utility Patents begin on the date the patent is issued and have an end date that is 20 years from the date the application was actually filed with the patent office.
A Design Patent is a patent on the appearance of a product or the physical design of a product being manufactured. A design patent does not protect the underlying idea; rather, it protects the way the particular product looks. For example, the underlying structure of a car is not protected by a design patent, but the way a particular car is designed (i.e. the way it looks) is protected under the design patent. Design Patents begin on the date the patent is issued and have an end date that is 14 years from the date of issue.
A Plant Patent is given to a person who "discovers and asexually reproduces" any new and decidedly distinct variety of plant. A Plant Patent will not be granted for plants that can be found freely in the wilderness or that are commonly grown – the species must be unique and new in order to be eligible for a patent. Plant Patents begin on the date the patent is issued and have an end date that is 20 years from the date the application was actually filed with the patent office.
To apply for a patent, an individual must submit a detailed description of the invention (otherwise known as the Specification) to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) in Alexandria, VA. The application must outline is very certain terms what the specific invention is and must also stipulate the best way known to implement the invention. Patents must be NOVEL (i.e. new), USEFUL (i.e. utility) AND NON-OBVIOUS in order to be granted.
The Specification includes: (see 35 U.S.C. § 101 et seq.):
The individual owners of patents are responsible for monitoring their own patents and discovering any possible infringements. If an infringement is discovered, the individual patent owner can seek injunctive relief and seek monetary damages as a result of the infringement. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) does not have a role in monitoring or enforcing existing patents.
Patents vary in their dates of expiration. For Utility Patents and Plant Patents, the patent period begins on the date the patent is issued and ends 20 years from the date the application was actually filed with the patent office. Design Patents expire after 14 years. In some cases, the patent period may be extended, but the maximum extension period is 5 years.