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What Is a Patent?

Patents protect inventions and functional designs for products. In exchange for publicly disclosing the invention or design, the inventor gains exclusive rights to the use of the patented device for a set amount of time, currently 20 years for utility and plant patents, 14 years for design patents. A utility patent covers inventions, that is, non-obvious and useful processes, machines, manufactured articles, or compositions of matter; plant patents are issued for new varieties of plants; and design patents protect ornamental designs.


Unlike the creative property protected by trademarks or copyrights, practical inventions and designs are protected only if a patent granted by the USPTO. However, patentable inventions can be protected as trade secrets under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act as long as they provide economic value and reasonable measures are taken to ensure their secrecy. Some companies and inventors choose to rely on trade secret protection to avoid the disclosure required to win a patent.