Utility, design, and plant patents provide temporary monopolies for creators of useful or ornamental inventions. A patent serves as a protection to prevent others from making, using, selling, or offering to sell the invention without authorization for a fixed time period—twenty years in the case of utility patents. This protection affords the patent owner an opportunity for economic reward and also serves as an incentive to continue creating other inventions for even further financial gain.
Utility patents are the broad machine and process patent grants we often think of when considering invention protection; these are the workhorses of intellectual property (IP) protection. Utility patents protect the structure and functionality of a product—how the product is made, how it works, and how it is used. Although utility patents are expensive and time-consuming to secure, the protection they afford patented inventions can be quite broad and difficult to challenge. Utility patents are usually issued from two to three years after the filing of a patent application and are valid for twenty years from the date of the filing.
Design patents protect ornamental features. Tremendous amounts of effort and engineering often go into the aesthetic development of commercial products. Whether the product is a toothpaste container or a kitchen appliance, hundreds of hours are often spent modeling and prototyping its look and feel. For instance, the Polycom SoundStation® speakerphone popular in US conference rooms is protected by a design patent issued in 1993. At about one-fifth the cost of a utility patent, a design patent issues within a year from filing and is valid for fifteen years from the date of issue. Because of the relatively low cost and prompt issuance, design patents are an excellent IP protection value.
US patent laws authorize plant patents for the protection of new and distinct varieties of asexually reproducing plants. Like utility patents, plant patents are valid for twenty years from the date of filing, and the published patents are usually quite notable for the beautifully colored photographs that frequently accompany the applications. Plant patents afford their owners the same exclusive rights as any other patent, but a critical element to note is that the plant must be asexual, meaning that the plants must make exact copies of themselves when they reproduce. Other federal statutes protect sexually reproducing plants, thereby providing broad protection for those involved in agriculture research and development.