For our purposes, we will focus on patentable inventions. Abstract ideas cannot be patented but many ideas are implemented in a manner (an invention) that falls within what is patent eligible subject matter. There are four general requirements for an invention to be patentable (as a utility patent): (1) it must comprise patent eligible subject matter, (2) it must be new, (3) it must be useful, and (4) it must be non-obvious. Each requirement for a utility patent will be address below. Then the requirements for design patents and plant patents will be discussed.
Patent-Eligible Subject Matter
The subject matter of the invention must fall within one of the patentable subject matter areas set forth by Congress. Patentable inventions include the following: a process/method, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof. The courts have stated that Congress had intended patentable subject matter to be very broad and may include anything under the sun that is made by man.
The invention must be new (e.g. novel). Patents are only granted on new inventions. Patents are designed to encourage inventing and the disclosure of inventions. Therefore if your invention has already been disclosed to the public in certain predefined ways, then you may be prohibited from obtaining a patent over your invention. A patent novelty search is designed to provide you with some information on whether your idea is new and therefore patentable.
However, an invention may be considered new even if the invention includes parts that are old and known. Many (if not most) inventions are an improvement on an old invention. Even the combination of old parts in a new way can be patentable. Similarly a new method of using a known device my be patentable.
A patentable invention must have a use or utility. This is the most easy element to satisfy. Unless the invention is only useful as landfill, the invention most likely is useful for something.
The invention must be non-obvious in view of the prior art (prior inventions and publications, among other things). The non-obviousness requirement is intended to ensure that the invention is sufficiently different or new to warrant patent protection. The non-obviousness requirement is not necessarily synonymous with the common understanding of the word “obvious.” The non-obviousness element is very circumstance dependent. Very small changes may be considered non-obvious. You should be sure to check with an patent attorney before concluding that your invention is obvious.
If your invention meets each of the above requirements, then the invention should be eligible for patenting, assuming all of the procedural requirements are met in filing and prosecuting a patent application.
The above requirements are for utility patents. The ornamental design of an article of manufacture may receive a design patent if it is new and original. Therefore like invention of a utility patent, the ornamental design can be protected if it is new and non-obvious. As design patent protection is narrow, even small changes in the ornamental design of an article may received design patent protection.
Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.