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The Basics of Patent Law

On Behalf of | Dec 28, 2023 | Patent Law

One of the most common questions our legal clients ask us is, “Can I patent my invention?” The answer is not always obvious. Our attorneys analyze the idea or the product that a client would like to patent. We determine which type of patent would be the most appropriate for the inventions. Next, we help them through the patent process. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issues patents to businesses and inventors for their inventions. Inventors and companies may apply for one or more of the two main types of patents — utility patents and design patents. The idea or invention must be new, useful, and not obvious to qualify for a patent.

A Brief History of Patents in the United States

American patent law began even before the founders ratified the Constitution. For over three centuries, Americans have patented ideas and products. Colonies that would later become states granted some patent applicants the exclusive commercial rights to use their products. Courts grant patents for a specified amount of time.

In 1641, the Massachusetts General Court granted Samuel Winslow a patent, providing him the exclusive right to a novel salt-making process for 10 years. While patent law has evolved in the United States since the first issuance of a patent, the foundational idea remains the same. Inventors of new or novel products have a right to apply for a patent that gives them exclusive rights to the product or idea for a specified period.

Utility Patents are Patents For Inventions

The most common type of patent is a utility patent. Utility patents protect the creation of a new or improved process, product, or machine. The owner of a utility patent has a right to prohibit other individuals or businesses from making, using, or selling the invention without authorization from the patent holder. Utility patents give others exclusive commercial rights to utilize and product the latest technology. Utility patents fall into three categories — electrical, chemical, and mechanical. The invention must be new, non-obvious, and useful to qualify a utility patent,

The USPTO grants utility patent holder exclusive commercial rights for 20 years. Examples of products or processes that are subject to utility patents include the following:

  • iPods, iPhones, Android phones, Kindle tablets
  • Chemical fertilizer
  • The method of manipulating genetic traits in mice

Because utility patents give inventors exclusive commercial rights for such an extended period, these types of patents are somewhat challenging to undertake. Completing the application for a utility patent can be challenging and time-consuming. In some instances, utility patent applications are expensive to undertake. It is wise for individuals or businesses seeking a utility patent to consult with experienced Chicago patent attorneys.

The utility patent attorneys atAU LLC help our clients submit accurate and timely patent applications. We remove a portion of the stress and uncertainty that comes with applying for a utility patent. Our attorneys understand how much time and money our clients have already invested in their product. That is why we take all patent applications exceptionally seriously.

Design Patents Protect Nun-Functional, Ornamental Designs

Utility patents protect how an object works. A design patent protects the ornamental design or the looks of a product. Designs must serve a practical utility to qualify for a design patent. As with utility patents, a design must be new, useful, and not obvious to be eligible for a design patent. In 1915, the company Coca-Cola received a design patent for the design of its classic “contour” or “hobble skirt” bottle. The Coca-Cola bottle design was the gift glass container to receive a design patent based on its unique shape.  The design patent did not protect the Coca-Cola formula itself; it only protected the shape of the bottle that went on to become one of the most iconic aspects of the brand.

The following types of designs may qualify for a design patent:

  • Jewelry designs
  • Furniture designs
  • Beverage container designs
  • Computer icons
  • Cell phone designs such as the Apple iPhone design

Design patents that consist of line drawings only protect the part of designs that have solid lines. Patents do not protect dotted lines. This issue came into play when a jury recently awarded Apple damages after Samsung copied the solid lines protected by Apple’s iPhone design patent.

Filing a Design or Utility Patent Application

Applicants may file either a provisional or non-provisional utility patent application. A provisional utility patent application is helpful when the applicant needs more time. Provisional patents last one year from the date of filing. A non-provisional utility patent application requires a significant amount of detail about the invention. Applications should include a detailed written description and claim of the invention, thorough drawings, and a declaration of oath by the inventor. It is wise to do a patent search for both design and utility patents to ensure that the design is novel before applying.

Protecting a Utility or Design Patent

Once a patent owner receives the patent, he or she has a legal right to protect the use of the product. Patent owners may bring patent infringement lawsuits against individuals or companies who infringe on their designs. Another individual or business cannot make, use or copy, or import a patented design into the United States without permission from the design patent holder.

Patent owners must bring patent infringement lawsuits in U.S. federal district courts as they have exclusive subject matter jurisdiction over patent issues. Either party has a right to request a jury trial in patent cases. Patent law recognizes the following two types of infringement:

  • Direct infringement: The accused defendant practiced every element of the patent holder’s patent claim. A party is liable for direct infringement if he or she uses, makes, offers to sell, or sells a patented design or invention within the United States.
  • Indirect infringement: The accused infringer did not practice every element of the patent but either contributed to another party’s direct infringement or induced another party to infringe the patent directly.


TheAU LLC Patent Attorneys can Help

The patent filing process is complex and can be expensive. AtAU LLC, we help clients all over the United States to identify, secure, transact, and enforce utility patents and design patentsContact our Chicago based patent law firm today to schedule your initial consultation.