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Article I of the United States Constitution provides Congress with the power to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to—inventors the exclusive right to their—discoveries.” Pursuant to this provision, Congress established rules and regulations governing the granting of patents. Congress delegated the administration of these duties to the Patent and Trademark Office. The statutory provisions are contained in Title 35 of the United States Code. The federal statutory scheme was modified considerably in 1995 with the adoption of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which aligned U. S. patent law with patent laws in other countries.

Issuance of patents is exclusively a federal concern, so state governments cannot issue patents to protect inventions. However, some state laws may provide protection to inventors if the inventor does not attain a patent.

Only certain types of inventions may be patented. The three major types of patents are utility, design, and plant patents, definitions of which appear in the federal statute. If an invention falls within one of the appropriate types of patents, the invention must still be patentable. First, the invention must be novel, meaning no other prior invention description anticipates or discloses the elements of the new invention. Second, the invention must have utility, that is, usefulness. Third, the new invention must not be obvious to those skilled in an art relevant to the invention. The latter requirement is referred to as “nonobviousness.”

Congress and the Patent and Trademark Office require that applicants follow specific steps in order for a patent to be issued. Once a patent has been issued, the right is considered the personal property of the inventor, so it can be sold, assigned, etc. The length of the patent depends on the type of patent issued. Generally, the length is either 20 years (utility and plant patents) or 14 years (design patents). Damages for patent infringement are rather severe, thus providing greater incentive for inventors to follow proper procedures to apply for a patent.

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