The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issues three different kinds of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents.
To qualify for a utility patent -- by far the most common type of patent -- an invention must be:
- a process or method for producing a useful, concrete, and tangible result (such as a genetic engineering procedure, an investment strategy, computer software, or a process for conducting e-commerce on the Internet)
- a machine (usually something with moving parts or circuitry, such as a cigarette lighter, a sewage treatment system, a laser, or a photocopier)
- an article of manufacture (such as an eraser, a tire, a transistor, or a hand tool)
- a composition of matter (such as a chemical composition, a drug, a soap, or a genetically altered lifeform), or
- an improvement of an invention that fits within one of the first four categories.
If an invention fits into one of the categories described above, it is known as "statutory subject matter" and has passed the first test in qualifying for a patent. But an inventor's creation must overcome several additional hurdles before the USPTO will issue a patent. The invention must also:
- have some usefulness (utility), no matter how trivial
- be novel (that is, it must be different from all previous inventions in some important way)
- be nonobvious (a surprising and significant development) to somebody who understands the technical field of the invention.
For design patents, the law requires that the design be novel, nonobvious, and nonfunctional. For example, a new shape for a car fender, a bottle, or a flashlight that doesn't improve its functionality would qualify.
Finally, plants may qualify for a patent if they are both novel and nonobvious. Plant patents are issued less frequently than any other type of patent.
The following items are just some of the things that might qualify for patent protection:
chemical formulas or processes
clothing accessories and designs
computer hardware and peripherals
fabrics and fabric designs
games (board, box, and instructions)
laser light shows
magic tricks or techniques
medical accessories and devices
sporting goods (designs and equipment)