There are three different types of patents currently available to inventors:
A utility patent is a 20 year monopoly preventing others from making, using or selling a patented invention. The beginning of the 20 year term is the date of application, and must be renewed periodically. The renewal times are 3, 7 and 11 years after the issuance of the patent.
Design patents are monopoly rights to the appearance or design of an article of manufacture. The term of a design patent is 14 years, with no renewal requirement. The tests for a design patents are the design must be new, non-obvious and ornamental. The novelty test is similar to that for utility patents, and the non-obviousness standards is comparison with the overall appearance of similar articles. The ornamentality standard just requires that the design not be functional. The standard for infringement is whether an ordinary observer, paying the attention that a consumer would, would confuse the two designs thinking they are the same. The defenses to infringement are the same as for utility patents.
Plant patents are monopoly rights in invented or discovered asexually reproduced plants. A plant patent gives the owner the right to prevent others from asexually reproducing, or using or selling an asexually reproduced patented plant. The term of a plant patent is 17 years, with no renewal requirement. In order to qualify for a plant patent, a plant must be new, non-obvious and distinct. Additionally, the plant may not be tuberpropagated or found in an uncultivated state. The novelty test requires that the plant not have existed in nature before. The non-obvious test requires that new features be significant. And the distinct test requires that the new features be distinguishable from existing varieties. Sexually reproduced plants are provided patent-like protection in the Plant Variety Protection Act. The Plant Variety Protection Act provides 18 years of protection for stable with uniform characteristics, new and distinct sexually reproduced plants.