There are four major patent types allotted through the U.S. Patent system.
- Utility Patents (Non-Provisional Patents)
- Provisional Patents
- Design Patents (MPEP 1500)
- Plant Patents (MPEP 2400)
Each of the different patent types has it own purpose. A utility (non-provisional) patent is the standard patent that most people think of when someone mentions the term patent. These patents have a 20 year life assuming the required maintenance fees are paid to avoid abandonment. A utility patent is designed to protect the utility and function of the invention and not the ornamental look or design of the invention.
A provisional patent application is an optional filing which can be made and is a kind of “place holder” for ones invention. In place of going through all the work of filing a complete non-provisional application, an applicant can file a provisional application. The provisional application does not require any claims, just a written description with necessary drawings to understand the invention, filing fee and a cover sheet which identifies the application as a provisional application, the names of all the inventors and their residence, the title of the invention, the name and registration number of the practitioner, correspondence address and any U.S. government agency that has a property interest in the application. Once a provisional application receives a filing date it has a 12 month life and can be converted to a non-provisional application or a non-provisional application can claim benefit to the provisional application. More details on these two options are discussed in the provisional application post.
Design patents are similar to utility patents in that an applicant can obtain protection on their new invention, however the rules for design patents are a little bit different. A design patent only has a life of 14 years unlike the 20 for a utility patent. Also, a design patent protects the way an article looks, not the way the article works/functions. A design patent can embody an entire article for just a portion of the article. It can also protect an ornamentation applied to the article. A design patent can only have a single claim and must include drawings or photographs showing the ornamental appearance of the item which protection is sought on. Generally, design patents are not as widely used as utility patents, but they can be good to use to augment protection from regular utility patents.
In addition to provisional, non-provisional and design patents the US patent law also allows for patent protection on certain types of plants. Specifically, an asexually reproduced distinct new variety of plant. A plant patent term is 20 years like a utility patent and nearly the same rules for utility patents apply to plant patents except what is noted in 37 C.F.R. § 1.161. Plant patents are not heavily tested on the exam but one or two questions are known to appear.
There are also specific rules created in US patent law for patents which deal with the relatively new subject matter of biotechnology. This information can be found in the following posts related to biotechnology.