What Are The 3 Types of Patents and How To Obtain One?

process and steps to patent your idea

While the concepts are simple, you’ll need to know which type of patent you’re seeking because they protect very different aspects of an invention or idea.

Table Of Contents


A utility patent provides legal protection for the working functions of an invention. Utility patents are used to stop others from “reinventing” what’s essentially the same product by closely mimicking the original. Unlike the design patent definition, the utility patent does not protect the form, or appearance of an invention, only the function.

sample utility patent - Toilet-Paper-Roll-465588
Utility Patents – Toilet Paper Roll

Because of the generally broader scope of protection, utility patents are the most common type of patent. Ignoring the nuances, there are two types of utility patent applications:

  • Provisional patent applications; and
  • Nonprovisional patent applications.

provisional patent application is an incomplete application that meets minimum filing requirements to secure a temporary 12-month patent pending date and status. Because these are incomplete applications that only temporarily reserve priority anyway, patent attorneys generally tend to spend far less time drafting them and subsequently charge the client far less. But many of our potential clients don’t realize that the moment they file a provisional patent application the clock starts ticking and they have 12 months to convert the application to a nonprovisional patent application or they will lose priority in the invention altogether.

nonprovisional patent application, is a complete application with detailed filing requirements monitored by the USPTO for compliance. When done properly, a nonprovisional utility patent application results in a carefully balanced disclosure of specification (context), claims, summary, and drawings. Ideally, the nonprovisional patent application provides broad claims and discloses just enough information to enable 3rd parties to implement the invention, but withholds enough information that that they must exhaust their own research and development costs. Getting this balance right usually requires a seasoned patent lawyer and several rounds with the USPTO, but is well worth the effort.

Nonprovisional patent applications are generally considered far superior to provisional patent applications, if only because provisional patent applications will never become registered as patents unless they are first converted into nonprovisional utility patent applications. In other words, provisional applications are the first down, nonprovisional applications are the touchdown.

In our practice, we frequently see clients who are fully committed to their inventions ask us for provisional patent applications because they are trying to save money. We generally try to steer them away from this approach. If you know you will be committed to this idea for more than a year, commit to a nonprovisional application because a provisional application will only delay things and cost you money. In fact, the only time we recommend the provisional patent application process is when the client expresses doubt that they are willing or able to pursue the idea for at least 12 months, but for some reason they need to secure the priority date anyway.

Design Patents - Toy Figure 253711
Design Patents – Toy Figure


Design patents protect the physical appearance of the invention. This type of patent is particularly useful in protecting an item from being visually counterfeited and marketed as the product or a close facsimile of the product.

Unlike the utility patent definition, a design patent does not protect the function of an invention. Instead, it only protects the form or appearance.


Plant Patents - R.G. Hass Avocado 139
Plant Patents – R.G. Hass Avocado

According to the USPTO, a plant patent protects agriculturists and other botanical inventors who have “invented or discovered and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant.”

Unlike the vast potential established by the utility patent and design patent definitions, plant patent applications are very uncommon outside of the botanical, agricultural, and pharmaceutical industries.

How To Obtain Patent Protection




The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) requires that an application for patent protection be submitted. If you are familiar with the 3 patent types, you will be better able to decide which patent application to submit. Our experienced patent attorneys will help guide you in the necessary steps to move forward with your invention or idea.

We offer a free consultation or you can fill out our form on this page to obtain more information.

patent slinky
Utility Patent
Non-Provisional Application
(Protects Functional Inventions)
Secures Priority in the Invention
Expires in 20 Years
Complete Application
patent slinky
Utility Patent
Provisional Application
(Placeholder For Functional Inventions)
Secures Priority in the Invention
Expires in 12 Months
Meets Basic Filing Requirements
design patent lego
Design Patent
(Protects the Appearance of an Invention)
Secures Priority in the Invention
Expires in 15 Years
Complete Application
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