In the United States, there are three types of patents: the utility patent, the design patent, and the plant patent. A utility patent is by far the most common type. It provides a 20 year term of protection measured from the date of filing for any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.
A design patent provides a 14 year term of protection measured from the date of grant for any new, original and ornamental design for an article of manufacture. Generally, a utility patent protects the way an article is used and works, while a design patent protects the way an article looks. The third type of patent, the plant patent, provides a a 20 year term of protection measured from the date of filing for any distinct and new variety of asexually reproduced plant that has been discovered or invented. Asexually propagated plants are those that are reproduced by means other than from seeds, such as by the rooting of cuttings, layering, budding, grafting, etc.
A patent gives its holder a the right to exclude others from making, using or selling a patented invention. It can be viewed as an agreement between the inventor and the public, as represented by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), that in return for fully disclosing the nature of the invention to the public, the PTO grants the inventor the right to prevent others from making, using or selling the invention for a limited period of time. After the patent term elapses, the public has full access to the invention and may make, use or sell it in competition with the inventor.
A patent can be both a sword and a shield. Patenting an invention provides protection for an invention offensively (the sword) by allowing the patent holder to prevent others from infringing - that is from making, using and selling the invention. A patent also provides protection defensively (the shield). If you choose not to patent your invention and someone else patents it, their patent can prevent you from freely using your own invention. The decision to patent an invention should be made keeping both of these types of protection in mind.
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