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If you have invented a new product or made a new discovery, you want to protect it so that no one else can profit from your idea. Perhaps the best way to accomplish this is by obtaining a patent. Patents last from 15 to 20 years, during which time you have the exclusive right to use your idea to make and sell products.

However, if this is your first patent, you may feel confusion over which type you should obtain. In the United States, there are three types of patents available, and each protects something different.

Design patents

A design patent protects the appearance of an object, not the invention itself. Design patents can be confusing. Despite the definition of design being an object’s surface ornamentation, the design and the object must be inseparable. In this context, the surface ornamentation can include an object’s configuration or shape.

Unlike the other types of patents, the term of the design patent begins on the date of issue, rather than the date of application, and lasts for 15 years.

Utility patents

The most commonly sought type of patent is the utility patent. It protects new and useful manufactures, machines, processes and composition of matter. In other words, a utility patent protects what you most likely think of when you hear the term “new invention.”

However, you do not need to develop an entirely new product to obtain a utility patent. If you find a way to improve an existing machine, process, etc. in a way that is new and useful, you may obtain a utility patent to protect your rights to the improvement you developed.

Once you receive a utility patent, it is good for 20 years from the application date.

Plant patents

If you are a horticulturist, you may conduct experiments in cross-breeding plants that result in an entirely new species. A plant patent gives you exclusive rights to use and sell the plant, as well as to reproduce it. One of the criteria for obtaining a plant patent is that you must demonstrate the plant’s ability to reproduce asexually, i.e., from a cutting or graft rather than from a seed. Like a utility patent, a plant patent’s term is 20 years from the date of application.