The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is able to issue several types of patents. The three main types of patents issued are utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. For the inventor, one of the first steps in the patent application process is to determine what type of patent the inventor will apply for.

Utility patents typically pertain to invention of a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or a new and useful improvement thereof. Such patents permit the owner of the patent to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention for a period of up to twenty years from the date of patent application filing provided maintenance fees are paid. Approximately 90% of the patents filed today are utility patents or “patents for invention.” Design patents are issued for a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture, and these types of patents also allow an owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the design. However, unlike utility patents design patents secure these rights for a period of fourteen years from the date of patent grant rather than twenty and are not subject to the payment of maintenance fees. Plant Patents are issued for any new and distinct, invented or discovered asexually reproduced plant including cultivated sports, mutants, hybrids, and newly found seedlings, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state. Like design patents and utility patents, plant patents allow for an owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the plant, and the term of protection is twenty years from the date of patent application filing. Plant patents are not subject to the payment of maintenance fees.

In addition to the three basic types of patents, an inventor must also consider whether to apply for a provisional patent versus a non-provisional, A provisional patent application is effectively a partially complete patent application that contains the science or technology behind the subject matter, but does not contain the legal claims necessary for the patent to issue. A provisional patent application allows for the applicant to claim an earlier filing date, but ultimately will need to be supplemented by additional filings for a patent to eventually issue. Applicants may also choose to file for a patent with the USPTO under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). A PCT application allows the inventor to file one international patent application in one language with one patent office, which if approved will facilitate patent protection for the claimed invention in up to 117 countries throughout the world. That said, inventors and prospective filers should keep in mind that a patent filing under the PCT does not grant an “international patent.” Rather, the system provides a process for facilitating what would otherwise be the prohibitively expensive and laborious task of filing a unique patent application in every major country throughout the world.

There are a number of options available to the inventor when it comes to filing for a patent, and it may be best to consult with a patent attorney before making a decision on which approach is best.