Patents are granted by the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) and allow someone to "exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States" for a certain period of time in return for publicly disclosing their invention.
A utility patent is granted to a person who invents or discovers a new and useful machine, article of manufacture, process, or composition of matter, business method, or a new and useful improvement thereof. The duration of a utility patent is 20 years from filing date if granted after June 1995.
These patents are restricted to design (how something looks) rather than utility (how something works). A design patent is granted to a person who invents or discovers a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture. Only the appearance of the item is protected. The duration of a design patent is 14 years from granted date.
A plant patent is granted to a person who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces a new and distinct plant variety. The duration of a plant patent is 20 years from filing date.
A copyright protects the writings of an author from being reproduced without permission. "Writings" may be literary, musical, pictorial, or motion pictures. The current duration of a copyright granted after January 1978 is life of the author plus 70 years; note that the duration of a copyright is a very contentious and complex issue and depends on several factors, including the date it was filed.
Note: the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) only deals with patents and trademarks.
The United States Copyright Office has copyright registration procedures and forms online.
A patent applicant must answer the question 'Is this patent useful, novel, and non obvious?' before the patent is approved.
The invention must fulfill a use ('be useful') and must be operable (it must actually work).
Business method patents are exempt from the last part of that standard, as they are typically ideas rather than objects.
The contents of the patent must either be new or a substantial update
The most important idea in the 'novelty' standard is that an invention will typically not be patentable if it is already known to the public, either because it's not sufficiently novel or because it's been publicized for over a year pre-patent application.
The contents of the patent cannot be obvious to someone with ordinary knowledge in the field.
The invention under application must build upon prior inventions (but not duplicate them) and it must be something goes beyond a simple fix or change ("not obvious").
See here for more information.
Prior art relates to the novelty requirement for a patent. If "the claimed invention was patented, described in a printed publication, or in public use, on sale, or otherwise available to the public before the effective filing date of the claimed invention," then it does not qualify for a patent.
There is a one year grace period for public disclosure by the inventor or if the information was obtained from the inventor. For additional details on prior art and its exceptions, see this presentation.
Disclaimer: None of the information provided is intended as legal advice. The library is available to provide patent searching assistance; if you require legal assistance, we can provide you with a list of licensed patent attorneys and agents.