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Home Research Guides Patents & Trademarks

Patents & Trademarks

Patents Overview

What are patents?

Patents allow someone to "exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling" an invention for a certain period of time in return for publicly disclosing their invention.

There are three main types of patents:

  • Utility - the most common, they cover machines, articles of manufacture, processes, compositions of matter, business methods, and improvements on them.
  • Design - protect the appearance of how something looks rather than how it works.
  • Plant - cover asexually reproduced plant varieties.

How do patents differ from copyright and trade secrets?

Copyright protects the reproduction of creative works, including literature, music, artwork, and motion pictures.

Trade secrets require companies to take reasonable measures to protect the secrecy of information of economic value.

Patent Searching

Patents provide enough information that someone in the field could reproduce the patented item. Thus, they are a rich source of technical information, as well as competitive intelligence. You may be interested in licensing a described technology from the patent owner, using technology from expired patents, or improving upon a previous technology and filing your own patent. See our Quick Guide to Patent Research to get started.

Searching US Patents

Searching International Patents

Applying for a Patent

Is it patentable?

Patents can cover processes, machines, articles of manufacture, and compositions of matter. A patent must also be useful, novel and non obvious. If something was previously patented, available to the public, or described in a printed publication, then it doesn't meet the novelty requirement. For more information, see Patent Requirements.

Patent Application Options

  • Provisional Utility Patents - these allow you to file a preliminary patent enabling you to establish an earlier filing date while allowing you a year to put together a nonprovisional patent application.
  • Nonprovisional Utility Patents - most common type of patent, protects how something works
  • Design Patents - protect the appearance of how something looks
  • Plant Patents - protects asexually reproduced varities of plants
  • International Patents - protect inventions outside of the United States; there are many options

For details on each of these options, see Types of Patent Applications/Proceedings. Also see the USPTO process for filing a patent.