A patent grants exclusive rights to a patent holder for a specified period of time. During this time, the patent holder has the right to make, use, and sell the patented creation. Once the specified period of time expires, the patented creation is available to the public, which is in the greater interest of fair use. The United States Patent Act, under Title 35 of the United States Code §§ 1 et seq. governs patent law.
According to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), there are three types of patents - utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. Utility patents are the most common patents, which the government issues for 20 years to new inventions that produce unexpected results. Design patents are for new designs for already existing devices. A design patent does not involve the functioning process of a device, but rather only changes aesthetic characteristics. Design patents last for 14 years. The government grants a plant patent where an inventor "has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced" a new kind of plant. The patent grants the exclusive right to use, sell, and reproduce the plant for 20 years.
A patentable innovation has five requirements: (1) it must involve a patentable subject, (2) it must have a utility, (3) it must be novel, (4) it must not be obvious, and (5) it must contain a description that specifically defines and enables the patent holder's exclusive rights.
According to section 101 of the United States Patent Act, "any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter," or any such improvement constitutes a patentable innovation. Evolving inventions and changing case law in various jurisdictions have added specific limitations to this requirement. In order for an innovation to be patentable, it must also be useful. The USPTO provides a list of guidelines for the utility requirement. The innovation must have a relevant purpose that is specific to the innovation, rather than a general and broad utility. Under section 102 of the United States Patent Act, a patentable innovation must be new and unique. Therefore, it cannot exist in other countries. A creator may lose rights to a patent by waiting too long to claim protection of the innovation. Section 103 states that a creator cannot patent an innovation if the subject matter "would have been obvious at the time the invention was made" to an average person who is familiar with the underlying subject matter. Finally, under section 112 of the Patent Act, in order to patent an innovation, the creator must specifically describe the innovation, and "the manner and process of making and using it." The description must be "full, clear, and concise." A proper and extensive description ensures full protection for patent holders.
Congress promotes exclusive rights for patent holders in order to promote new and innovative developments. However, in order to secure exclusive rights, inventors must record patent information with the United States Patent and Trademark Office immediately.