« Blog home

Patents: An Overview

Patents cover new, non-obvious, and useful inventions, such as machines, devices, chemical compositions, and manufacturing processes. The right to exclude is given to the inventor who first files with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Patents are the most defined and formal type of intellectual property. Unlike trademarks and copyrights, which are protected even if the owner files nothing with the USPTO, the protections of a patent only arise after the government has examined the invention and granted the patent.

There are three types of patents: Utility, Design, and Plant.

Utility patents comprise the majority of patents. Examples of utility patents are rotary cutters and safety mechanisms on rotary cutters, features on sewing machines, and processes for making fabrics. Utility patents also cover procedures and methods, such as a new way of cutting fashion fabric.

Design patents cover new and ornamental designs of useful articles, such as furniture, containers, toys, and shoes. The design has to have practical utility. Design of useful articles are not covered by copyright law (insert picture of dress).

Plant patents cover new and distinct plant varieties.

To obtain a patent, an inventor must file an application with the USPTO, in a timely fashion. The patent application has very specific requirements. Then the application gets assigned to an examiner. The examiner may spend years going back and forth with the inventor to determine if the idea/invention meets all of the requirements.

If granted, the patent will include all kinds of helpful technical information. (show Watanabe patent). For example, this is a patent that I pulled for a light on a rotary cutter.

A patent gives the patentee the right TO EXCLUDE others from making, using, or selling the claimed invention in the United States for 17 years from the issue date (with some exceptions).

Simple example: A patent exists for a pencil. You invent the concept of attaching an eraser to a pencil, and you receive a patent for that invention. You do not have the authority to make, use, or sell pencils with erasers attached; you have to get a license for the pencil patent.

You don’t have to make or sell the invention to exclude others.

If a product is patented, it helps (in a variety of ways) to mark the product with the patent number, or “patent pending” if an application has been filed but has not been accepted or rejected. – (Show photo of acceptable marking). As an aside, I interviewed someone who was putting “patent pending” on a purse when no application had ever been filed – this is an illegal deceptive trade practice.

A patentee also has the right to file a lawsuit for infringement against anyone who, without authority, makes, uses, or sells the patented invention. This is true even if another person independently invented the same idea. The intent of the infringer is irrelevant in determining liability. If the infringer does so intentionally, however, the patentee is entitled to additional damages as a punishment for infringement.

Patents are the property of the inventor(s), which means they can be sold or assigned.

As a practical matter, obtaining a patent requires a specialized lawyer, and it is expensive – most cost over $10K. Patents are most useful for inventions that will be commercially important. For example, Bernina may be the first to invent an automatic threader and want to exclude the other sewing machine manufacturers from having that feature.


Patents primarily cover machines, devices, and processes. They are expensive and time consuming to obtain and provide protection only if allowed by the government.