What Is a Utility Patent?
A utility patent covers the creation of a new or improved—and useful—product, process, or machine. A utility patent, also known as a "patent for invention," prohibits other individuals or companies from making, using, or selling the invention without authorization. When most people refer to a patent, they most likely are referring to a utility patent.
- Utility patents are specific to products, processes, or machines that are new or improved.
- Patent owners have exclusive rights to make, use, or sell the invention, giving utility patents a meaningful value.
- Patents are good for up to 20 years but may require maintenance fees to maintain them.
- Utility patents make up more than 90 percent of all patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Understanding Utility Patents
Utility patents give inventors exclusive commercial rights to produce and utilize the latest technology covered by the patent. This value makes utility patents difficult to obtain. As well, they can be difficult to write, the process may be time-consuming and expensive to undertake, and their complexity may make them difficult to understand.
Utility patents cover the creation of a new or improved—and useful—product, process, or machine and give its inventor exclusive commercial rights to it for 20 years.
The nature of a utility patent is covered in Title 35, Part II, Chapter 10, Subsection 101 of the United States Code, which defines it as any invention for which a patent may be obtained: "Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title."
Utility patents are issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and last for up to 20 years. However, the patent holder may have to pay maintenance fees over that time period. Once a utility patent has been issued, inventors have the right to stop others from manufacturing, using, or selling their invention.
For many, the first step in obtaining a utility patent, aside from a unique idea, is enlisting a patent attorney or agent. They can guide an inventor through the complex utility patent filing process. The next step may be hiring a technical illustrator to draft patent drawings. When all the pieces are compiled, a filing may be made. Depending on the complexity of the invention, filing costs can range from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.
Utility Patents vs. Other Patents
A product protected by a utility patent also may obtain a design patent, which safeguards its unique visual elements and requires only drawings of a design accompanied by limited text. Design patents last for 14 to 15 years from the date of filing and can be obtained on their own. To get both a utility patent and a design patent, remember that the invention must be useful and serve some practical purpose, not just decoration.
A third type of patent available is called a plant patent, and it is acquired by someone who has discovered or created a new variety of plant. It lasts 20 years from the date of filing and requires no maintenance fees. Plant patents are considerably fewer than utility or design patents.
Examples of Utility Patents
Utility patents, the most common type issued by the USPTO, apply to a broad range of inventions, including:
- Machines (something composed of moving parts, such as engines or computers)
- Articles of manufacture (brooms, candleholders, etc.)
- Processes (business processes, software, etc.)
- Compositions of matter (pharmaceuticals)?
According to the USPTO, more than 90% of all patents granted are utility patents.
Searching for Utility Patents
The USPTO offers multiple ways to search for patents, whether it is part of your research before applying for your own or even if you are just curious. The Patent Public Search option allows users to search by keywords, inventors' names, or other filter options. There also are options available for searching application status if you already have filed for a patent.
How Do Utility Patents Differ From Other Patents?
Utility patents are for products, processes, or machines that are new or improved, and they represent more than 90% of patents granted by the USPTO. Among other types of patents are design patents, which are drawings of a design with only minimal text. It's even possible to patent a plant that you have discovered or created.
Can You Search for Existing Patents?
The USPTO's Patent Public Search option allows users to see what patents might already exist. Searches can be filtered by keywords and other descriptions.
Do Utility Patents Expire?
Utility patents are good for up to 20 years. During that time period, the patent holder may have to pay maintenance fees to maintain the patent.
The Bottom Line
New or improved products, processes, or machines are eligible for utility patents, which give the patent holder exclusive rights over the product. This includes manufacturing and selling the product, and that can be valuable when there is a market for the patented item. Utility patents are the most common type of patent granted by the USPTO by a wide margin, and they are good for up to 20 years.