In general, a utility patent protects the way an invention is used and works. Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new and useful method, process, machine, device, manufactured item, or chemical compound – or any new and useful improvement to the same. Utility patents are subdivided into mechanical, electrical and chemical categories. For an invention to be granted a utility patent, the invention must also be useful, novel and non-obvious. The USPTO regards an invention as useful when it is capable of accomplishing the task it was designed for (i.e. the invention must work). Novel means that the invention differs in some specific way from existing knowledge in the public domain or previous patents (which is known in the patent world as prior art). Finally, the invention must not be considered to be obvious by people trained in the art or area in which the invention could be known. Providing the maintenance fees are paid, utility patents are generally valid for up to 20 years from the date of filing (with some exceptions).
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