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A patent is the intellectual property right granted by the U.S. Government to an inventor "to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the U.S. or importing the invention into the U.S." for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention when the patent is granted. In most cases, this is twenty years from the date of application. In some situations, the term of the patent may be extended due to delays in the processing of the application. After the patent has expired, the invention becomes public domain. In addition, patent owners must pay a maintenance fee at 3.5, 7.5, and 11.5 years after issue or else the patent will expire.
See "How to Read a U.S. Patent" from Queen's University Library for a detailed description of the sections of a U.S. patent.
Utility patent: Describes a new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or useful improvement thereof (i.e. what something does)
Design patent: A new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture (i.e. how something looks)
Plant patent: Describes an asexually reproduced distinct and new variety of plant (e.g. ‘NuMex Heritage 6-4’ New Mexican Chile Pepper)
1. Patents facilitate venture capital investment.
2. Patents can help a startup defend itself against attacks by incumbent rivals.
3. Patents can help a startup stop the theft of its innovations by larger rivals.
4. Patents can ensure a startup’s freedom to operate.
5. Patents can help a startup rapidly increase its market share.
6. Patents can help startups form joint ventures and R&D partnerships.
7. Patents can increase the chances that a startup will be acquired.
8. Patents can help a startup get ready for an IPO.
9. Startups with intellectual property achieve greater long-term success than startups without it.
10. Patents can help a startup launch a billion-dollar empire.
-- from Forbes