What is a Utility Patent?

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When we talk about patents, there are three main categories: utility, design, and plant patents. Most commonly, we refer to new patents in regards to utility patents, but design patents are also standard for protecting the look and styling in a design. Utility and design patents often go hand in hand. For now, we need to understand what is a utility patent?

What is a Utility Patent?

Utility patents are new ideas and inventions that bring new machines, systems, or products that use novel mechanics. Within the scope of a Utility Patent are also improvements of the already existing mechanics, devices, or products. Utility patents, therefore, focus more on functionality and how a new invention can be useful, rather than the look and feel of it. The latter is an area for design patents.

A utility patent helps inventors protect new useful inventions in the scope of a product or machine. An inventor must apply for a utility patent to the USPTO (the United States Patent and Trademark Office), which then grants or declines the patents. A utility patent can be a highly-valued piece of intellectual property, but the process of obtaining one can be lengthy and costly.

Let’s take a look at utility patents more in-depth, what exactly they protect, how inventors can obtain them, who can get a utility patent, and how you can get one. We will also compare utility patents to design and plant patents.

What does a utility patent protect?

A utility patent gives inventors exclusive rights for twenty years to their invention, whether it be the new machine or a new mechanism that they invented. It allows them to use the invention for their means, such as marketing, selling and producing the technology. With the patent, an inventor gains copyright for their device that they can use for stopping any possible infringements made by other competitors.

The United States Code describes a utility patent like this: “Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.”

What precisely a utility patent protects is down to the filing application presented to the USPTO by the inventor. In essence, it protects all features and concepts explained in depth within the form, so the inventor needs to write suitable applications that thoroughly and accurately describe the new invention. For example, a utility patent might protect a new gadget with a specific feature. Still, if the patentee does not define the function in the application, then it is not protected by the patent.

Even though obtaining a utility patent can be a lengthy procedure, it may be worth the effort. That is especially the case if an inventor has faith in the success of his invention. Spending the time filling all the papers and investing thousands of dollars could pay off in the long run. That’s not to say success is guaranteed once you get your patent. After all, very few patents make money, as we explained in this earlier article

We know two types of utility patents: provisional and non-provisional. Provisional patents are much easier to obtain, but unlike popular belief, they are not patents. Provisional applications, as they are known, only prove that you were the first to file the idea for an invention. In a fast-paced, competitive world, being first to file is very important. The inventor must apply for the non-provisional utility patents within twelve months of the provisional application. Non-provisional patents require much more information than provisional patents and are often harder to obtain. In either case, both a non-provisional and provisional patent must be properly completed to offer any real legal protection for your invention. If you make a mistake during this process, you could see all of your hard work, go down the drain.

How to file a utility patent

The filing requirements issued by the USPTO are quite strict and must be followed by the patentee if there is any hope for a patent to be granted by the office. For many inventors, the first step for filing or getting a utility patent is to hire a patent attorney, which is also the most convenient way to do it. An attorney can provide an inventor with useful information and the correct processes for filing the patent.

If an inventor wants to file for a patent, he or she must first do some research. They must make sure that there are no similar patent applications or patents already in place. To make sure that they are not wasting their time, they can search for patents on the USPTO website using the patent search feature. This search allows users to customize the search very thoroughly, and you might need to add some filters to find the patents similar to your invention. Don’t get discouraged if you find out that there are patents similar to your idea. If you look closely, you should be able to come up with more ways to make your invention unique. 

There are three ways to file a patent: by mail, electronically, or by hand at the office in Alexandria, Virginia. By far, the most convenient way to file a patent is electronically, which one can do using the filing system used by the USPTO, called EFS-Web. Sending it by the U.S. mail is another option while delivering it by hand can also be considered. Just note that the latter two ways of filing can cost you up to $400 in “non-electronic” filing fees, which is an added cost for those looking to save money.

For non-provisional utility patents, the process is arguably the longest and requires a lot of effort. With design patents, the inventor must provide concise and clear drawings of the design. For utility patents, on the other hand, there are several strict requirements that the inventor must follow. When describing the new invention, the inventor needs to accurately and as thoroughly as possible illustrate the device so that all the new features are entirely understood and could effectively be used by professionals within the field to produce a product. Utility patents are primarily teaching manuals that help users understand the new invention. Writing the Claims section of the patent is an essential part and an area that usually needs the experience of a patent attorney.

A good step for someone who doesn’t have much experience in filing for patents would be to hire an attorney, but that would cost thousands of dollars. If you are prepared to spend that, then that option is the best choice in our opinion.

Not all utility patent applications get accepted; in fact, many get rejections the first time around and might take many resubmissions before being approved. Inventors can work around rejections by improving their applications, adding more details about the invention, and anything else that they might have left out. The process is complicated to navigate because you are limited to the additional information you can provide. If you accidentally leave certain things out of the claims or descriptions, the USPTO might require you to file a completely new patent application. The most important thing is to describe novel mechanisms and features in detail.

Utility vs. Design Patents

The chief difference between utility and design patents is that utility patents protect functional inventions such as machinery and products. In contrast, design patents protect the look and feel of the invention. 

There are some other minor differences between utility and design patents that inventors should know. 

  1. Scope of protection. As we already established, the main difference between utility and design patents is that design patents protect the design, while utility patents protect specific features of the invention. Utility Patents define how a device works.
  2. Fees for attorneys. You should know that utility patents are far more costly than design patents, not only to file them but especially if you want to hire attorneys. The fees of attorneys for initial filings are less than $1000 for design patents, while for utility patents, the price can be $5000.00, $10,000, or more. The total costs of the utility patents can shoot up into tens of thousands of dollars very quickly.
  3. Rejection rates. Utility patents are far more likely to get rejected than design patterns. The possibility of a design patent getting rejected is relatively low, while the chance of a utility patent getting rejected is quite high.
  4. Protection time and pendency. Once an inventor files for a design patent, he might have to wait for up to nineteen months for the whole process to finish. For utility patents, that number goes up to thirty-three months on average. Additionally, these two differ in the times that they are valid. Design patents last for up to fifteen years, while utility patents last for twenty years.
  5. The application process is different for each. The application for a design patent differs significantly from a request for a utility patent. A design patent consists of a precise drawing of the design and the look of the invention. On the other hand, the application for a utility patent consists of written claims and explanations of the invention.
  6. Utility patents are much more challenging to acquire. In general, utility patents are more difficult to get compared to design patents. That is because the utility patent costs are higher, the process longer, and the application is much more complicated. 

As we already mentioned, there is another type of patent, and those are plant patents. These are quite different from the other two. Plant patents protect new varieties and types of non-reproductive plants.

How long does a utility patent last and when does it start?

The time that a utility patent lasts is twenty years. However, this number can vary because it might take years or months before the process of getting a patent is completed. An inventor can, initially, obtain a provisional patent for the first twelve months, but they will not be able to discuss or market their product during that time. After that time, the provisional application will expire, so it needs to be upgraded into a non-provisional Utility patent. 

The non-provisional patent application can go on for a few years. The Utility patent application process is sometimes lengthy and arduous. They often require an attorney to push things forward. The typical time to obtain a non-provisional patent is thirty-three months. The date of issuance is also the date when the twenty-year period begins. It is on this date that the patent is valid and will be able to be used effectively to protect your unique invention.

Specific examples of utility patents

The term utility patent contains many different areas of an invention. Ninety percent of all the applications are seeking protection via utility patents. It should not be a surprise to learn that many of them received rejections. Here are some examples of what a utility patent can protect.

  • Machinery: Include entities that are composed of moving parts, like various engines, computers, and other similar pieces of machinery — the most common type of utility patent.
  • Processes: Contains more of an idea or a mechanism used to create something — IE: software and various methods used for business.
  • Pharmaceuticals and various processes for creating them. Other chemicals also fall into this category.
  • Manufacture articles: Various items for practical use, such as pieces of furniture.

As we can see, the scope of utility patents is extensive, and many new inventions fall into this category. They are also often combined with design patents to protect how the look and feel of the device. 


Utility patents can be highly-valuable pieces of intellectual properties (IP)  when filed correctly. They are sought-after by inventors as they give them exclusive commercial rights to their invention. Utility patents can also be a valuable asset for entrepreneurs seeking to protect their inventions via the legal system. Unfortunately, it is also a time-consuming and expensive process to protect your invention from infringement. Even once you have a patent in hand, the chances of making any money from your idea are very slim.

For inventors that just want to show off their patents, it can represent the pinnacle of their careers. For others, they can be a profitable venture. For most, Utility Patents are just a piece of paper to hang on their walls. Whatever your reason for deciding to apply for a Utility Patent, make sure you understand all the steps involved before deciding how to proceed. 

Are you ready to become an inventor?

Getting your idea out of your head and into your hands is only the first in a long set of steps towards becoming a successful inventor.

First Steps To A Successful Invention

At Invention Therapy, we believe that the power of the internet makes it easier than you think to turn your invention idea into a reality. In most cases, you can build a prototype and start manufacturing a product on your own. Changing your way of thinking can be difficult. Being an inventor requires you to balance your passion with the reality of having to sell your products for a profit. After all, if we can't make a profit, we won't be able to keep the lights on and continue to invent more amazing things!

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