U.S. utility patents are issued for the invention of a "new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or a new and useful improvement thereof." It generally permits the utility patent owner to exclude others from making, using, or selling the invention for a period of up to twenty years from the date of patent application filing, subject to the payment of maintenance fees. Approximately 90% of patent documents issued by the USPTO are utility patents.
Comparing a "utility patent" with a "design patent," a utility patent protects the way an article is used and works, while a design patent protects the way an article looks. The ornamental appearance for an article includes its shape/configuration or surface ornamentation applied to the article, or both. Both design and utility patents may be obtained on an article if invention resides both in its utility and ornamental appearance.
Three main factors are considered as to whether an invention has "utility": operability, beneficial use, and practical use. The operability of an invention is usually uncontested, and the threshold for "beneficial utility" is not high: the Federal Circuit stated that: "[t]he threshold of utility is not high: An invention is 'useful' under section 101 if it is capable of providing some identifiable benefit."