Invention vs. Patentable Invention

Industry expert Tony O'Lenick consults the US Patent and Trademark Office Web site,, to answer the question: What is the difference between an invention and a patentable invention? ...

The patent law specifies the general field of a subject matter that can be patented and the conditions under which a patent may be obtained. In the language of the statute, any person who “invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent,” subject to the conditions and requirements of the law.

The word process is defined by law as a process, act or method, and primarily includes industrial or technical processes. The term machine used in the statute needs no explanation. The term manufacture refers to articles that are made, and includes all manufactured articles. The term composition of matter relates to chemical compositions and may include mixtures of ingredients as well as new chemical compounds. These classes of subject matter, taken together, include practically everything that is made by man and the processes for making products.

The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 excludes the patenting of inventions useful solely in the utilization of special nuclear material or atomic energy in an atomic weapon 42 U.S.C. 2181 (a). The patent law specifies that the subject matter must be useful. The term useful in this connection refers to the condition that the subject matter has a useful purpose and also includes operativeness; that is, a machine that will not operate to perform the intended purpose, would not be called useful and therefore would not be granted a patent.

Interpretations of the statute by the courts have defined the limits of the field of subject matter that can be patented. Thus it has been held that the laws of nature, physical phenomena and abstract ideas are not patentable subject matter. A patent cannot be obtained upon a mere idea or suggestion. The patent is granted upon the creation of a new machine, manufacture, etc., as has been said, and not upon the idea or suggestion of the new machine. A complete description of the actual machine or other subject matter for which a patent is sought is required.

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