Utility patents offer the broadest protection for any new or useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter. Utility patents are filed under 35 USC 111(a) and offer inventors protection against infringement for a term of 20 years, calculated from the filing date. Most inventors seek to obtain utility protection for their device. In order to qualify for utility protection, a device must be “enabled”, that is, a person having ordinary skill in the art to which the patent pertains must be able to practice the invention after reading the patent.
Design patents protect the way something looks, not the structural components informing the device. Design patents are narrower in scope, and protect patterns, the shape of a particular implement, and other ornamental concerns. A design patent might be right for you if you have devised something that already exists, but has a new ornamental value you want to protect. Design patents are enforceable for 14 years, from the date of issuance.
A provisional patent is a temporary filing, filed under 35 USC 111(b), used to secure the benefit of a filing date. Provisional patents are not enforceable in and of themselves, they merely establish a filing date to which a future, nonprovisional application will claim benefit when subsequently filed. Most inventors file a provisional patent application when seeking to establish a filing date to ward off competitors, and to enable further research and development in enabling their device. The nonprovisional application that is subsequently filed will be given the filing date of the provisional to which it claims benefit, so long as no new subject material is introduced into the nonprovisional application. A provisional application is active for 12 months only, and then abandons, unless a nonprovisional application is filed to claim the benefit of the provisional filing date. The nonprovisional application must be filed within 12 months from the provisional filing date, or else the provisional will abandon.
Design patents cannot claim the benefit of a provisional filing date.
To see an example timeline illustrating a utility application claiming the benefit of a provisional application, please see the timeline below.
Less common, plant patents are granted to an inventor who has invented or discovered, and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated site. Plant patents last for 20 years, from the date of filing.