When a new invention is created, developers often invest thousands — or even millions — of dollars into the product or idea. Once the invention is complete, how do they prevent others from stealing their idea and unfairly profiting from it? Smart inventors patent their new creation.

Governments grant inventors patents as a form of legal protection for their inventions. Patents give inventors exclusive rights to their inventions, so no one can make or sell the same invention for a certain period of time.

Each country decides how its patent process will work and what types of inventions can be protected. In the United States, there are three types of patents: utility patents, design patents and plant patents.

Utility patents, which cover physical objects, comprise most of the patents in the United States. Utility patents protect the way an invention is used and how it works.

Inventors can receive a utility patent if they develop a useful method, process, machine, device, manufactured item, chemical compound or any new and useful improvement to these objects. Some examples of utility patents include the tennis racket, the skateboard and the popcorn machine.

Design patents protect the appearance of an invention — but not how it works. For example, let's talk about patent #D332173 (aka bunny slippers).

As you know, there are many types of slippers and shoes. The person who holds patent #D332173 does not have a patent on all slippers; instead, this patent protects one particular design (the bunny slipper). Other common design patents you have probably seen include athletic shoe designs and characters, such as those you see on television or in movies.

A plant patent protects newly created varieties of plants. For example, patent #PP9199 protects a specific variety of peach tree called the "Island King." The inventor who created this variety of tree describes the Island King as being similar to another peach tree called the "Queencrest," which was used to develop the new variety.

Although the two trees are similar, the Island King produces fruit that ripens earlier than that of the Queencrest, which allows the Island King's fruit to be harvested and shipped two weeks earlier. Therefore, the Island King peach tree is eligible for a patent of its own!

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