Think about some of the amazing inventions that have graced our lives over the years:

  • A mystical orange powder that, when combined with water, allows people to travel to the moon. We call it… Tang.

  • A mysterious ointment that removes itchy bumps from your buttocks. We call it… Preparation H.

  • An intellectual challenge of wit, survival, and backstabbing trickery. We call it… Candyland.

Every invention that you can think of (be it a machine, a toy, a food or even a process) needs a patent. If you don't get a patent, then any random Joe can copy your idea and make money off it. If you get a patent, you're protected: only you can reap the financial rewards and claim the idea to be your own. So if you're a burgeoning Thomas Edison (who, by the way, holds the record for "The Most Patents," numbering over 1,000), then read on and learn how to protect your invention.

We're going to warn you up front though, that this can be a technical and confusing process. So forgive us if this SYW isn't a laugh-a-minute riot; we just want to make sure that you don't screw up, lose out on millions of dollars, and sue us.


A patent is basically a promise by the government to protect certain types of inventions or discoveries and to provide the owner of the patent with the exclusive right to make, use, or sell the patented item. We have patent protection because it encourages people to be creative and inventive. After all, if other people could just rip off your inventions and profit from them as soon as you made them, why would you bother to invent in the first place? But if you can get a patent for your doohickey, you are the only one who can profit from it, unless you sell the patent or a license to use it to someone else. For instance, only Mattel can profit off of the official Barbie Doll, because they have the patent for that product. If another company wants to profit off of Barbie, it either has to get permission from Mattel (not in this lifetime!) or change the invention until it's different enough so that it doesn't legally infringe on Mattel's patent (that is, until it's dissimilar enough so that no one would confuse the invention with Barbie).

Types of patents

The patent statute allows for three types of patents:

  • Utility patents cover the sorts of thing most people usually think would be covered by patents. A general invention, machine, process, whatever.

  • Design patents protect certain designs in manufacturing or building, based on the unique appearance of the item.

  • Plant patents protect certain types of plants (really).

We're only going to discuss the first kind in this SYW, because they're the most common and it's almost certainly the kind you'll want if you are reading this. If you want to patent your new breed of petunia, go find a plant lawyer.

Categories of utility patents

Utility patents cover four types of "inventions":

  1. Machines. Mechanical devices composed of parts that work together to do something. Machines can be completely new or made up with existing inventions to achieve a new purpose.

  2. Compositions of Matter. Mixtures of stuff that have cool properties. These include drugs, chemicals or metallic alloys.

  3. Processes. According to the Supreme Court, processes are "a mode of treatment of certain materials to produce a given result." Hmm, illuminating. Basically, a process is a way to do something.

  4. Man-made Products. Anything that you can make that isn't a machine or a composition of matter. This last category is just a catch-all for stuff that doesn't fit in the other categories of tangible inventions.

Things you CAN'T patent

  • Patent protection is not available for natural processes that you discover, such as the law of gravity, or for mathematical principles. You can patent something that uses natural or mathematical laws (e.g. computer software), but you can't try to preclude other people from using those laws in the future.

  • You also can't patent a natural product, even if it takes a lot of work to discover it, as might be the case with a rare medicinal herb.

  • Business methods, though arguably processes, have historically not been protected by patents. However, recent case law has signalled a significant shift in this position - if a so-called "business method" otherwise meets the statutory definition of a process, it now may well be patentable. Printed material cannot be protected by a utility patent, even though it is a man-made item.

  • Some printed material can be protected by a design patent, but only if the design of the material, and not the written content, is being patented. Enough talk of design patents, though. Just remember that you can't patent natural stuff.

Why patents are good

Utility patents give the patent owner the exclusive right to make, use, or sell the patented item for exactly 20 years from the date of the original patent application. That makes patents quite valuable; for 20 years, nobody can use your invention without you getting some money (for instance, if you invent a wire used by Dell in their computers, they are required to give you a little money from every purchase because they're using your invention).

Understand, though, that your rights in a particular object are "exhausted" (that's the term the courts use to say "given up") when you sell it to someone. So if you patent solar-powered hedge trimmers and sell them to people, they would be allowed to use or sell them. You can also sell licenses to people who want the right to make, use, and/or sell your patented item, and then they would be allowed to exercise whatever rights you had sold them.