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What Is a Utility Patent?

written by: Vikas Vij•edited by: Ginny Edwards•updated: 3/2/2011

Wish to apply for a product or process patent? Make sure you have a clear understanding of what is a utility patent. More than 90 percent of all patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office are utility patents.

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    Applying for a Utility Patent

    Product Patent For entrepreneurs and developers of new and innovative products, it is a good idea to have some knowledge of what is a utility patent. There are various types of patents as per the classification of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). Each class of patents offers a different type of protection and intellectual property rights. As per the PTO, a utility patent refers to a patent that is issued for the invention of a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or a new and useful improvement thereof.

    It is important to understand that a utility patent can be granted not only for a completely new invention but also for any original innovation that improvises upon a previously existing product. The PTO normally allows the patent holder to have exclusive rights to produce, use or sell the invention for a period of up to 20 years from the date the patent application is filed. Utility patents are also known as “patents for invention" and almost 90 percent of all patents issued by the PTO in recent years have been in the category of utility patents.

    Photo Credit: raja4u

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    A Basic Understanding of Utility Patents

    To understand what is a utility patent, one should look at the technical meaning of utility. A utility is anything that has a purposeful or useful function. The governing condition is that the invention should not only be new or innovative but should also be useful. It need not necessarily be a product, machine or device only, but it could also be a new process or method that has usefulness. These patents are primarily divided into electrical, mechanical and chemical categories.

    Utility patents are slightly more difficult to define than a design patent because it also protects the method and the procedure of making, which is an intangible thing. To achieve a patent successfully, the key condition is that the invention must be sufficiently unique and dissimilar from other existing products or processes. The invention should also not have been patented in any other part of the world in order to be patented in the U.S. A good example of a utility patent could be an ergonomically designed keyboard, which is sufficiently different from other keyboards and adds substantial usefulness to the product in terms of ergonomical comfort.

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    Provisional Utility Patents

    Inventing a new product or process can be a prolonged process. Sometimes the inventor may choose to file a provisional utility patent that ensures nobody can copy the product or process while it is still under development. Once the product trials are complete and it is ready fot full performance, the inventor may file a regular utility patent for it. However, if the invention is not successful in its final form, the inventor has the option to let the provisional patent expire.

    A utility patent remains valid during its term allowed by the PTO, as long as the patent holder makes timely payments of the periodic maintenance fees for it. New patent applicants should also note that the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) does not issue any special forms to apply for a patent, except the form of declaration. To apply for a utility patent, the inventor needs to create his or her own application following the guidelines of the USPTO.

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    Fundamental Criteria for Utility Patents

    Utility patents must fulfill three essential criteria, which include operability, benefit, and practical usage. Operability is the first condition which is concerned with the fact that the invention is actually workable and provides the utility that the inventor has claimed in his application. The second condition that the invention must fulfill is benefit. The new product or innovation must not be frivolous or hazardous to the user or the society in any way. An invention may be unique and functional, but it may be harmful to the user or the society. Such inventions cannot be patented under the U.S. law.

    The last condition that the product must fulfill is practicality. The invention must be of specific practical usage to the user. This condition is relatively easier to satisfy when the product to be patented is a mechanical, electrical or electronic product. But it may be more difficult to satisfy in case of chemical compounds, where the practical usage must be evidenced or demonstrated.

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    U.S. Patent and Trademark Office - Types of Patents