Types of Patents

Types of Patents

Date: December 28, 2011

Types of PatentsThere were close to 800,000 patents granted last year around the world, according to the latest government agencies that track the statistics and information about these patents.  The top categories were computer technology, electrical machinery and equipment and telecommunications.  And, digital communications just barely fell out of the top 10 in the latest year, but has been higher in past years among all types of patents.  Medical technology and pharmaceuticals are also in the top 10 industries or market segments around the world with active patent applications and awards.  Historically, at least in the U.S. investments in medical research and pharmaceutical product development have always been at the forefront of patent awards. The latest data suggest that this trend continues.  Patents and inventions tend to follow the most popular business and economic trends. Or it may be the other way around. The inventions and innovations included in the patented products help to spur growth in these key areas.

What types of patents are included in these latest statistics?  If you have a new idea or invent something, what kind of patent should you apply for? The U.S. Patent and Trade Office (PTO) patent applications fall into three large categories or types.

Utility Patents

First, there is what’s known as a Utility Patent.  This type of patent is generally issued for the invention of a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter. Patent applications can also be files for a new and useful improvement on an existing process.  When granted, these types of patents permit its owners to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention for a period of up to twenty years from the date of patent application filing.  Continued patent protection for that period is contingent upon payment of maintenance fees to the PTO.  Approximately 90% of the patent documents issued by the PTO in recent years have been utility patents, also referred to as “patents for invention.”

Design Patents

The second group is called Design Patents.  These are issued for a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.  If you design a new way to put together an artificial Christmas tree, for example, you can apply for a patent on that design.  Similar to Utility Patents, the Design Patent permits its owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the design.  But that protection on the design is for a period of fourteen years rather than the 20 years with a Utility Patent.  Another key difference is that Design patents are not subject to the payment of maintenance fees.

Plant Patents

The third large group is called Plant Patents.  These are issued for new and distinct, invented or discovered asexually reproduced plants including cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly found seedlings, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state.  This patent permits its owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the plant for a period of up to twenty years from the date of patent application filing.  And, like a Utility Patent, Plant Patents are not subject to the payment of maintenance fees.  Basically, the Plant Patents are the alternative used by growers, plant enthusiasts, and others instead of a Utility Patent. The concept is similar, but Plant Patents apply to unique and distinct plants rather than products or services.

Other Types of Patents

Outside of these three main types of patents, the PTO also issues or awards patents for a few other reasons, basically to correct errors or offer inventors more limited protections.  The Reissue Patent is issued to correct an error in an already issued utility, design, or plant patent.  Once awarded, it does not affect the period of protection offered by the original patent based on the original date of issue.  There is also what’s known as a Defensive Publication (DEF) or what is now known as a Statutory Invention Registration (SIR) issued by the PTO.  These – and the DEF has been phased out or replaced by the SIR – offer more limited protection as inventors and innovators discover or create new ideas and products. These last two are intended to be defensive in nature and provide a way for an inventor to prevent others from using or patenting the same idea, design or plant.

Provisional Patents

In addition to these key types of patents, and the market segments where they are most important, we are all familiar with the term “patent pending”.  The PTO grants patent pending status to an invention, design or new plant when a provisional application is filed.  Basically, the inventor or creator of the new product or idea submits an application to the PTO that temporarily prohibits someone else from using the idea.  Once the provisional application is submitted, the invention can legally be labeled as “patent pending”.  While this does not offer the same level of protection as an actual patent – only one person can be awarded a patent for an invention – the process does discourage others from trying to copy the idea.  Patent pending status is intended to protect inventors and their inventions while a more formal patent application process is being completed.


There are three main categorical types of patents. You will need to consult with a patent attorney to determine the best type of patent to file for your invention. Not only does it take time to create and invent and be innovative, but it takes time to file all the right patent documents as well – for all types of patents.

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