In 2012, there were more than half a million patents filed in the United States. While there are at least six different types of patents issued by the United Stated Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), the three most common types are utility patents, design patents, and plant patents.

Most patents fall into the first category, but it’s important to know how each type of patent operates, and which ones you need to secure the long-term success of your invention, whether you go it alone or use the services of a patent attorney.

Utility Patents

According to the USPTO, 90 percent of all patents are utility patents, which protect the utility or functional aspects of an invention. Though the definitions are broad, utility patents cover machines, processes, methods, compositions and anything manufactured that has a useful and specific function.

For purposes of clarity, the USPTO defines “useful” as anything that has a recognizable benefit and use capability. A utility patent can also be issued as an improvement to any of the above inventions.

When the patent is being reviewed, reviewers look for inventions and functions that are novel, not obvious, and specific, though, the function of the patent does not have to be immediately obvious to the user.

How Long Do Utility Patents Last?

Utility patents are granted for 20 years from the date that the patent application was filed. In addition to the initial patent filing fees, inventors must submit maintenance fees throughout the life of the patent in order to keep the patent’s protection.

Term extensions are available for inventors who want to go beyond the 20-year mark, but they’re only available for certain situations and patents.

What Does a Utility Patent Protect?

A utility patent prevents others from manufacturing, selling, using or distributing your invention, and once you’ve been filed for a utility patent, your invention will have immediate “patent pending” status, which acts as a disclaimer until the patent has formally issued.

Though it doesn’t offer the same legal protection as an issued patent, it can be used to warn competitors that they may be responsible for damages if the invention is duplicated and sold or used.

Examples of utility patents: Because they’re so ubiquitous, most patents you may come across are utility patents. They could be anything from a new type of search engine that only searches government websites, to a type of trailer hitch that hasn’t been used before.

Design Patents

While a utility patent protects the utility or function of a product, a design patent protects its aesthetic appearance. Design patents can be issued for the appearance, design, shape or general ornamentation of an invention.

To qualify for a design patent, the patented product must be non-functional, otherwise, a utility patent would be necessary to protect it. Like the utility patent, design patents are granted for those appearances that are new, specific, and not obvious.

If a design patent is filed, the function or utility of the product is not protected, unless a utility patent is also filed in order to protect both the function and appearance of the invention. A design patent application usually includes a simple drawing and quick description of the product’s appearance.

How Long Do Design Patents Last?

A design patent is good for 14 years from the date the patent was granted. Unlike utility patents, there are no maintenance fees associated with a design patent, and the patent is sustained without question once it is issued.

What Does a Design Patent Protect?

A design patent prevents others from using, selling or manufacturing the appearance of your product. Again, the protection is only for its aesthetics and not its function. A design patent can’t be granted if a similar design exists, and it doesn’t not have to be an exact copy, but must be very similar.

Design patent examples: When Microsoft released the Xbox, it received a design patent for the “X” because it was deemed a unique appearance that, if copied, would have harmed Microsoft’s business. Google also received a design patent for its homepage, which is also distinct and associated primarily with the search engine. Apple also owns several design patents for its iPhone and other distinct consumer products.

Plant Patents

Each year, less than 1,200 plant patent applications are filed with the USPTO. It’s historically been an uncommon patent: in 1948, 18 years after plant patents had started, only 750 plant patents were issued, half of which were for different types of roses.

Plant patents are available for the discovery or invention of plants that are asexually reproduced. They must be, like the other patents, novel, distinct and not obvious. They have a 20-year lifespan that does not include maintenance fees.

Hybrids (though not first-generation), mutants, sports and other plan varieties can have plant patents, which prevents others from growing and selling the plants. This type of patent was created in order to protect the grower who found a new variety and would then be subsequently put out of business once competitors learned how to produce the plant as well, and usually, at a greater scale.

Need Help With Your Patent?

No matter what kind of patent you’re filing, legal help from a qualified, experienced patent lawyer can make the process substantially easier and less time-consuming.

If you need help with your patents or other intellectual property assets, contact JacksonWhite Law today. Our innovative intellectual property team can help you secure the future of your inventions and ideas with cost-effective services.


Call JacksonWhite at (480) 464-1111 to discuss your Intellectual Property case today.

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