A patent serves as a contract between society and an individual inventor. Under the terms of this contract, the inventor is given the exclusive right to prevent others from making, using, and selling a patented invention for a fixed period of time--usually for up to 20 years--in return for the inventor's disclosing the details of the invention to the public.
Many products and technologies would not exist without patent protection, especially those that require substantial investments. However, once these products are available in the marketplace, they can be easily duplicated by competitors. When patents are not available, technology is closely held. Patent owners can exclude others from making, using or selling their invention or creation.
Patents are not easily obtained. Patent rights are granted not for vague ideas but for carefully tailored claims. To avoid protecting technology already available, or within easy reach of ordinary individuals, those claims are examined by experts. Patent claims may vary as much in value as the technologies they protect.
There are three types of patents: 1) utility patents; 2) design patents; and 3) plant patents. Utility patents may be granted to any new and useful process or useful improvement thereof. A design patent protects the ornamental design of an article or creation. A plant patent is granted for the invention or discovery of a district and new variety of plant.