The US patent system offers two different kinds of patents, to protect different kinds of ideas: design patents and utility patents. In a design patent, functionality is not that important; what is protected is the “look and feel” of a product. Utility patents, on the other hand, protect inventions—either entirely new ideas or improvements to existing inventions. The invention can be a machine, a manufacturing process, a new composition or chemical compound, or something that combines these three. However, utility patents can only be granted to inventions that qualify, and functionality is a basic criteria for qualifying inventions.

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A utility patent can only be granted for inventions that are both novel and useful; in addition, improvements to existing inventions must be also be non-obvious and substantial to be eligible for patent protection. Novelty is straightforward and simply prohibits the patenting of existing or non-unique ideas and inventions. However, most patent applications fail on the basis of novelty, rather than utility or functionality, so it can help to do a patent search to make sure that your invention is unique.

The usefulness requirement demands that an invention have an intended purpose and that it actually works to fulfill that specific purpose. To fulfill this requirement, inventors need to be as precise and detailed as possible in filling out the patent application. For improvements, any changes must also be substantial—that means any new additions must create a real and notable benefit—even a seemingly small design change that lowers a machine’s energy consumption could qualify as substantial. Usually, the inventor has to make a case for the patent by presenting evidence of its significance so it’s important to be thorough and detailed when you apply.

Currently, according to the USPTO, 90 percent of all approved patents are utility patents. The utility patent is also the most expensive and time-consuming patent to apply for. It can cost as much as $10,000 by the time the process is complete, and take up to five years. Given the complexity of the patent application process, many inventors file for provisional patents, which offer some protection while the patent application is in process. During that time, the invention has patent pending status. The provisional patent offers inventors a much-needed extension of time to develop the patent while getting the product on the market without fear of loss or theft.

If you need help getting a utility patent, we can help you get free legal advicefrom a lawyer near you.

Get started Create Your Provisional Patent Application Answer a few questions. We'll take care of the rest.

Get started Create Your Provisional Patent Application Answer a few questions. We'll take care of the rest.