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Intellectual Property Law

This guide covers basic resources for researching intellectual property (IP) law: copyright, patents, trademarks, and more.


The USPTO defines a "patent" as:

A patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office…What is granted is not the right to make, use, offer for sale, sell or import, but the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention.

The subject matter of a patent must be:

  1. Useful,
  2. Novel, &
  3. Non-Obvious

For more on patentability, see the USPTO's Patent Basics.

Utility Patent

USPTO defintion: "[A]ny new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof."

  • Maintenance fees required
  • Term is generally 20 years from date of filing
  • E.g., US 10,460,568 B2, specialized slot machine

Design Patent

USPTO defintion: "[A] new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture."

  • No maintenance fees required
  • Term is generally 14 years from date of filing
  • E.g., US D906,656 S, Reebok® shoe design

The soles of two Reebok tennis shoes as shown in Fig 1 of patent application

Plant Patent

USPTO defintion: "[A]ny distinct and new variety of plant."

  • No maintenance fees required
  • Term is generally 20 years from date of filing
  • E.g., US PP20,911 P2, Echinacea purpurea or Green Queen

"Green Queen" patent figure 1

Primary Law

Historical Antecedents

Historical antecedents to the American patent system include:

  • 1331 Letters of protection issued to John Kempe in England
  • 1474 Patent Statute of Venice (established a "strong core" that subsequent patent systems built upon)
  • 1623 Statute of Monopolies, 21 Jac. 1, c. 3 (Eng)

For more history, see John N. Adams' History of the patent system or browse the library catalog. For a timeline of changes to patent law since 1952, see Ladas & Parry's Brief History of the Patent Law of the United States.


The Constitution

The Intellectual Property Clause of the Constitution states:

[Congress shall have Power . . . ] To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

U.S. Const. art. 1, § 8, cl. 8. For more on the origins and scope of patents, see the Constitution Annotated.



The first patent act was passed in 1790. There have been four important revisions or codifications since:  1793, 1836, 1870 and 1952.



Title 37 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)



Secondary Sources

CALI (Computer Assisted Legal Instruction) lessons and tutorials: