The United States has several ways of protecting intellectual property. The most common ways are copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets, and patents. There are other specialized types of protection that are relevant to specific industries.
Within patents, there are three types: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. Plant patents are as the name indicates a way to achieve a limited monopoly in a new form of a plant and not a type of patent handled by FLYNN IP LAW.
Utility patents are frequently simply called patents as this is the most common form of patent in the United States. A utility patent covers an improvement to the what and the how of a good or service. Frequently this is adding a new feature that is visible to the end-user. Sometimes, it is an improvement in the process to provide a good or service. In either event, a company may wish to protect the innovation by obtaining a utility patent so that competitors cannot copy the improvement. Utility patents do more than prevent copying as a utility patent is effective to preclude a competitor from implementing a patented feature or process even if the competitor is an “innocent infringer” that did not know of your patent or prior invention.
While many people new to the patent process assume that novelty is the only test for obtaining patent protection--that is only the start. In order to obtain a patent, one must document how to make and use the invention. In addition, one must convince the patent examiner that a person of ordinary skill in making this sort of good or service would not find this solution to be an obvious combination of previous solutions. This hypothetical person of ordinary skill in the art is deemed to have access to everything ever done to make this sort of good or service or to solve analogous problems in other fields. This person of ordinary skill is deemed both omniscient of really obscure sources of information and able to understand all languages. Given that the patent application lays out the solution, the patent examiner uses tools to find the pieces in a range of industries and argues that one of ordinary skill in the art would combine these pieces. A patent examiner will assert that a person designing an implant for spinal fusion would be aware of a piece used in a steam locomotive once the patent examiner finds some overlap between the spinal implant and the piece from a steam locomotive.
Design patents protect the ornamental appearance of an object. A design patent is more like a trademark than a utility patent, as both a design patent and a trademark help a consumer make purchases from a specific source of goods without getting mislead to make purchases from a second company pretending to be the specific source of goods.
Within utility patents, there are several different types of applications.
There is a regular utility patent application.
There is a less formal, temporary application known as a provisional application. The provisional application does not get examined and only lasts for a year. Unless the provisional application is claimed in a regular utility patent application within a year of filing the provisional application, the provisional application expires without any legal effect.
As discussed elsewhere on this website (See Patent Cooperation Treaty Applications), there is another type of utility application known as a PCT application that counts as a utility patent application in the United States and a large number of other patent systems.