A Primer on US Patents

Patents are a cornerstone of modern innovation, providing inventors with the exclusive rights to their creations without the fear of immediate replication. 

They are a form of intellectual property that grants inventors the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, or importing their invention for a limited period. This system is designed to encourage innovation by allowing inventors to reap the benefits of their work.

Three types of patents

There are three primary types of patents:

Utility patents: These are the most common type of patent. They are granted for the invention of a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or a new and useful improvement thereof. 

Utility patents protect the functional aspects of an invention and last for 20 years from the date of filing.

Design patents: A design patent covers the aesthetic aspect of an invention and does not extend to its functional features. These patents protect the ornamental design of a functional item for 15 years from the date of grant.

Plant patents: Granted for the invention or discovery and asexual reproduction of a new and distinct variety of plant, these patents last for 20 years from the date of filing. They ensure that the inventor has exclusive control over the propagation of the plant variety.

The 'first inventor to file' rule

The America Invents Act introduced a significant change to the U.S. patent system with the "First Inventor to File" (FITF) provision. 

This rule states that if two inventors independently come up with the same invention, the one who files for a patent first will have the priority. This emphasizes the importance of filing patents promptly.

For startups and tech companies involved in research and development, maintaining detailed R&D journals is essential. These journals serve as evidence of the invention process and can support invention disclosures, which are critical when filing for patents.

Inventors should be aware that they have a one-year grace period from the time they disclose their invention to the public to file a patent in the U.S. However, this is not the case in many other countries, where any public disclosure before filing can bar the inventor from obtaining a patent.

Patents are exclusively a 'right to exclude'

It's important to note that patents only provide inventors with the right to stop others from exploiting the invention. They do not grant the inventor the right to exploit the invention themselves. This distinction is crucial because it means that having a patent does not necessarily give the inventor the freedom to use their invention if it infringes on someone else's patent.


Patents are a complex but vital part of the innovation landscape. 

They protect inventors and ensure that creativity and invention are rewarded, driving progress across industries. 

Whether you're an independent inventor, part of a research team, or a business owner, understanding patents is key to navigating the world of intellectual property and securing the rights to your inventions.