Patents Q&A

What Types of Patents and Patent Applications are Available?

There are a number of different types of patents and patent applications. The available types of patents and patent applications also vary by country. Before turning to those specifics, an important initial distinction to note is between a patent application and a granted patent.

Patent Applications Versus Granted Patents

A patent and a patent application are not the same thing. This is a common source of confusion for those unfamiliar with patent law.

Patent Applications

A patent application is essentially a request by an inventor/applicant to obtain a patent. It is a custom-prepared document rather than a template form that is filled-in. Simply filing a patent application does not by itself entitle the applicant or inventor to enforceable legal rights. More is required to secure enforceable exclusive rights in an invention. Filing a patent application is just the first step in that process. Importantly, applications generally have to undergo an official examination to assess patentability. The applied-for invention may or may not be patentable.

Pending patent applications are normally (but not always) published after approximately 18 months. This means that there are publicly-available “patent application publications” or “published patent applications”. But these still only pertain to a (pending) patent application as opposed to a (granted) patent. A patent application publication, alone, is not enforceable.

There is really nothing final about a patent application when it comes to rights in an invention. Whether published or unpublished, the existence of a patent application really only means that someone currently is or was in the past pursuing patent protection. A good analogy is somebody filing a complaint to a commence a lawsuit: they hope to win, eventually, but merely initiating the lawsuit is not the same as a final judgement on the merits. There can be changes to a patent application while it is pending. So the published version of a given application may not fully reflect its current contents. And patent applications can be abandoned entirely.

Granted Patents

A patent is granted (or issued) by a government as a “public franchise” and gives the owner(s) exclusive rights to an invention. The scope of the enforceable legal rights are defined by the claim(s) of the patent. A patent is also enforceable only in a given jurisdiction. There is no such thing as an international patent enforceable throughout the world. So obtaining exclusive legal rights in multiple countries usually requires obtaining patents in each of those individual countries—though a few regionally-enforceable patents exist outside the USA. In the U.S., a granted patent is presumed valid because it has undergone pre-grant examination to assess patentability. Though even granted patents can still be challenged.

Every patent starts out as a patent application. And there may be multiple patent applications related to a given patent. But, on the other hand, any given patent application might or might not turn into a granted patent. A patent office may reject the patent application because the claimed invention is unpatentable, for instance. Or an applicant may simply abandon an application before a patent is granted for a variety of reasons.

Patent Families

Patents and patent applications that are formally related to each other are often referred to as a patent “family”. This includes reference to “parent” and “child” patents and applications.

Types of Patents

There are three types of patents available in the United States for different types of inventions:

  • Utility
  • Design
  • Plant

Utility patents are directed to useful inventions. If someone refers merely to a “patent”, chances are they mean a utility patent. Most U.S. patents are utility patents. In other countries these may have a slightly different name, like invention patents in the People’s Republic of China.

Design patents are directed to inventive ornamental designs of useful articles. They do not cover functional features or designs in the abstract—unconnected to an article of manufacture. In some other countries, designs are not covered under patent laws but instead as either “industrial designs” that are a unique type of protection or something closer to trademark (trade dress) protection.

Plant patents cover inventive asexually reproduced plants. Some inventions related to plants can be protected by utility patents, which is to say that a plant patent is not the only possible type of patent protection available for plant-related inventions.

The types of available patents are not the same around the world. In some countries, utility models or petty patents are available. But those types of patents do not exist in the USA.

Types of Patent Applications

There are a number of different types of patent applications in the USA:

  • Provisional
  • Nonprovisional
    • Continuing Applications:
      • Divisional
      • Continuation
      • Continuation-in-Part (CIP)
  • PCT International Application (and associated National Phase Entry)
  • Hague International Design Application
  • Reissue

Provisional applications are not examined but can be relied upon by a later-filed non-provisional application claiming “priority” to the provisional. They serve as a kind of temporary placeholder to preserve rights to file a nonprovisional application within a year. Provisional applications are available only for utility and plant inventions. They are not available for design inventions. The U.S. and a few other countries permit provisional applications but most countries do not.

A nonprovisional application is essentially just a regular patent application. It can be an application for a utility, design, or plant invention. Nonprovisional applications in the U.S. undergo substantive examination and can potentially result in a granted patent.

Continuing applications are special types of nonprovisional applications that claim priority to an earlier, co-pending domestic U.S. nonprovisional application or PCT international application designating the U.S. But an application with a priority claim to a prior foreign application or U.S. provisional application is not considered a continuing application. What is called a “divisional” application in many other countries might be called either a “continuation” or “divisional” application in the U.S.

The PCT system, which is administered by a United Nations agency (WIPO), provides a sort of application clearinghouse to facilitate the pursuit of patent protection in various participating countries. But the PCT system still requires action in individual countries or regions. At the start, a (single) PCT international application that designates selected participating countries (usually all participating countries) is filed in a “receiving office”. The international application can then later enter the national phase (or regional phase) in one or more designated countries or regions. A PCT national (or regional) phase entry is actually not separate from the PCT international application but merely represents a different (national/regional) phase in the life of the same international application.

Hague international design applications are roughly the equivalent of a PCT application but for design inventions.

Reissue applications are applications to correct an error in an issued patent. In other words, reissues only arise after a patent has already been granted. Broadening reissues, which enlarge the scope of the claim(s), must be filed within two years of grant of the underlying patent. Other (non-broadening) reissue applications are not subject to the two-year filing deadline. Grant of a reissue results in surrender of the original patent.

Have an invention you would like to patent? Have a brand you would like to register as a trademark? Concerned about infringing someone else’s intellectual property? Is someone else infringing your IP? Need representation in an IP dispute? Austen is a patent attorney / trademark attorney who can help. These and other IP issues are his area of expertise. Contact Austen today to discuss.