What are the different types of patents?

An inventor who knows about patents and understands the best way to use them has a huge advantage in protecting their invention.

by Joe Runge, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  4min read

Congress grants inventors different kinds of patents to protect different kinds of inventions. Learning how to use each kind of patent application will help any inventor better utilize the U.S. Patent Office to protect his or her invention.


What are the different types of patents?

Different types of patent applications exist so that inventors can protect different kinds of inventions. Savvy inventors can utilize the different kinds of patent applications to secure the rights they need to protect their inventions.

There are four different patent types:

  • Utility patent. This is what most people think of when they think about a patent. It's a long, technical document that teaches the public how to use a new machine, process, or system. The kinds of inventions protected by utility patents are defined by Congress. New technologies like genetic engineering and internet-delivered software are challenging the boundaries of what kinds of inventions can receive utility patent protection.
  • Provisional patent. United States law allows inventors to file a less formal document that proves the inventor was in possession of the invention and had adequately figured out how to make the invention work. Once that is on file, the invention is patent pending. If, however, the inventor fails to file a formal utility patent within a year from filing the provisional patent, he or she will lose this filing date. Any public disclosures made relying on that provisional patent application will now count as public disclosures to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
  • Design patent. This patent offer protection for an ornamental design on a useful item. The shape of a bottle or the design of a shoe, for example, can be protected by a design patent. The document itself is almost entirely made of pictures or drawings of the design on the useful item. Design patents are notoriously difficult to search simply because there are very few words used in a design patent. In recent years, software companies have used design patents to protect elements of user interfaces and even the shape of touchscreen devices.
  • Plant patent. Just what it sounds like, a plant patent protects new kinds of plants produced by cuttings or other nonsexual means. Plant patents generally do not cover genetically modified organisms and focus more on conventional horticulture.

What is a provisional patent?

A provisional patent affords inventors an extra year of time in order to decide if and how to file a utility patent. That's just one example of how an inventor can use multiple patent filings to mitigate risk, hedge a bet, or expand patent protection.

Say you are hard at work beating eggs with a whisk when you realize that if you curve the tines and flatten them slightly you could produce delicious scrambled eggs in half the time.

You 3D print a prototype and, in addition to its working beautifully, you realize the reshaped tines produce a very distinctive look.

As you apply for a patent, consider all the ways to protect your new device.

You can file a design patent to protect the distinctive look of your improved egg beater. You can file a utility patent to protect the machine itself and the way it works. You can even file a provisional patent application to give yourself more time to file your utility application.

The different types of applications exist to give inventors options. You may have three design concepts for your egg beater that you initially test. They all work about as well, so you include drawings and a description of each in a provisional patent application.

A few months into your testing, you discover one design is not durable—breaking after a few uses. While talking with potential licensees, you discover that another design is difficult to manufacture due to the tine geometry.

The egg beater would cost more to produce than anyone would pay for a kitchen gadget. As you start to write your utility patent, you will know what design to emphasize and where to focus your patent strategy.

Your egg beater provisional patent gives you a year to learn more about the device and the possible market for your patent.

As you weigh your options, keep in mind that filing a patent has consequences. The USPTO publishes utility patent applications a few months after they are filed. At that point, your application is prior art against all future inventions. Be sure to file patents strategically to avoid tripping over your own inventions.

The point is to protect your invention

If you are going to go to the effort to write a patent application, make sure you fully consider every kind of protection available. United States law offers four different kinds of patent applications. Use them to get the right protection for your budget and as part of your broader strategy to get a return on your investment.

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Joe Runge, Esq.

About the Author

Joe Runge, Esq.

Joe Runge graduated from the University of Iowa with a Juris doctorate and a master of science in molecular evolution. H… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.