What Can You Patent?
It helps to know what exactly you can patent under US law so that your invention can be properly protected. There are limitations to what patents can protect for the simple reason that patenting common items, ideas, or thoughts would not be enforceable. This is why there are certain items that can be patented while other areas cannot.
What Can Be Patented?
If you look at the statue that was written for the law, the patent applies to anyone who discovers or invents a useful machine, manufacture, composition of matter, process, or any useful improvement of such. There are additional considerations as well of which there are additional laws and statutes that apply. One area that does cause some confusion is the use of the word “process” which has different meanings depending on how it is used.
In applying for a patent, “process” is defined as being a method or act that is primarily associated with technical or industrial processes. Another point of contention is “composition of matter” which applies to non-living chemical compositions, ingredients, and the like. For example, if you create a new mixture of ingredients that creates a new composition of matter, you may apply for a patent to provide protection for your process.
There are exceptions to the composition of matter, most notably what is included in the 1954 Atomic Energy Act which excludes patents for any invention that is used or utilized for the sole purpose of atomic or nuclear material found in an atomic weapon or bomb. This is one special exception to the general patenting process in the United States.
The Boundaries of Useful
Another area of contention with the patent process applies to the term “useful”. How that term is interpreted will determine whether your invention qualifies for a patent. In most cases, useful means that it offers some tangible benefit or can be operated which applies a benefit to a large group of people. For example, if you create a machine that does not operate or perform in a manner that fits its intended purpose, then it would not be useful in that regard and a patent application would be rejected.
The term useful is somewhat tricky, but essentially it must provide a beneficial service or performance as intended by the inventor. When applying for a patent explaining how the invention is useful needs to be spelled out carefully.
What Cannot Be Patented
Over the year, the courts have made rulings over the interpretations of the statutes within the laws governing patents. These rulings have placed limits on what can be patented by using the standards of physical phenomenon, abstract ideas, and laws of nature to act as a guidepost for future patent cases.
This means that there are certain things that simply cannot be patented, either because it does not meet the minimum criteria, or it stretches beyond what can be legally patented. For example, you cannot patent an idea. It must be something which is more than what you think, it must be a design in which its usefulness can be shown. This prevents the patenting of inventions that are not possible today because the materials or technology does not exist.
However, if it can be demonstrated that potential product, machine, or device does have a useful purpose, then it may be patented assuming it falls under the proper criteria. This allows inventors who have come up with invention ideas, but lack the financing to create full-scale models to patent their inventions. This assumes that the usefulness of their invention can be properly demonstrated that fits the criteria for a patent.