What Can and Cannot be Patented?

Patents can protect inventions, ornamental designs on articles of manufacture, and asexually reproduced plants.  A utility patent is available for a new, nonobvious, and useful invention that falls into one of the following categories:

  • Process
  • Machine
  • Article of manufacture
  • Composition of matter
  • Improvement of any of the above

Congress has decided that some things cannot ever be patented, however, and has written into the laws that the following categories are unavailable for protection:

  • Laws of nature
  • Physical phenomena
  • Abstract ideas
  • Literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works (these can be protected with copyright, however)
  • Inventions which are either not useful / impossible (such as perpetual motion machines) or inventions which are offensive to public morality

There are a number of requirements for patentability.  An invention must fall into one of the above categories, but must also be:

  • Novel
  • Nonobvious
  • Adequately described or enabled (for one of ordinary skill in the art to make and use the invention)
  • Claimed by the inventor in clear and definite terms

These four requirements above are often the most difficult hurdles for most applicants and inventors to overcome, especially if the applicant attempts to draft a patent application on its own.  The application submitted to the Patent Office must be written so that the invention is presented as a novel and nonobvious one, or it must be proven in argument later on.  Additionally, the application must describe and claim the invention fully and clearly, which, in some ways, means that the application should adhere to terminology generally used in patents and must always adhere to the many, many rules regarding formatting and diction.

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