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Intellectual Property

Guide to Intellectual Property: What is a Patent?

Have you ever considered the value of a great idea? Not only can an idea or invention lead to substantial profit for its creator, it also can change the world in profound ways, from starting a new industry to saving lives. If you’ve developed a unique idea, it’s important to protect what you’ve created and to ensure you’ll have the opportunity to improve and market your idea. Our intellectual property (IP) system makes this all possible.

With our “Guide to Intellectual Property” blog series, the National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) is discussing the basics of IP protection. Now that we’ve covered copyrights and trademarks, let’s take a closer look at patents.


What is a patent?

While copyrights protect creative works from books to music to motion pictures, and trademarks typically protect IP associated with companies, like taglines and logos, a patent offers protection for an invention, such as a product, process or machine.

The U.S. Constitution, in Article I, Section 8, gives Congress the power to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." 

Simply put, a patent gives an inventor the exclusive rights to their invention. This means that once you’ve patented an invention, no one else can make, use or sell what you’ve created without your permission. Granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), patents generally last for 20 years past the date when the patent application was filed. 


What kinds of patents are there?

The three most commonly used types of patents are utility, design and plant patents.

Utility patents
When people think of patents, this is typically the type they have in mind. According to the USPTO, a utility patent may be granted for “any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” In other words, a utility patent protects the function or method of a new machine, chemical, system and other useful invention.


Design patents
A design patent protects any “new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.” This type of patent can protect the unique way your invention looks. One of the most famous examples of a patented design is the distinctive look of the Coca-Cola bottle. This recognizable design is an important part of the Coca-Cola brand and cannot be replicated by another company.


Plant patents
You may not think of a plant as a patentable invention, but in fact, a patent may be granted to anyone who “invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.” For example, NIHF Inductee Luther Burbank, who developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants, understood the value of patenting his creations.


How can I determine if my invention should be patented?

The patent process and patent laws might seem intimidating, especially for those who are new to world of innovation and IP. To simplify, there are three important questions you should ask yourself about any invention you’d like to patent:

  1. “Is my invention novel?”
    An invention can certainly build upon what’s been created before, but there must be something new and unique about it, such as a function that goes beyond what current inventions can do, for it to qualify for a patent.

    Conducting a U.S. patent search and reviewing prior art can help you determine if your invention meets this particular requirement and guide you to focus your efforts on developing the most unique aspects of your invention.

  2. “Is my invention non-obvious?”
    Your invention must be clever; it can’t be something that one might simply stumble upon without effort.

  3. “Is my invention useful?”
    Your invention might be cool and exciting, but it won’t earn patent protection unless it’s useful.


Once you’ve answered these three questions, you’ll want to learn much more about the process and benefits of obtaining a patent. The best place to do that is at

We also encourage you to follow along with the rest of NIHF’s “Guide to Intellectual Property” series, which will cover trade secrets next.

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