What is a Patent?
A patent is a form of intellectual property and is generally registered with a sovereign state or intergovernmental organisation. The inventor is given an exclusive set of rights granted for a limited time period (generally a minimum of 20 years from the date of registration), these rights exclude others from distributing, selling and making use of the patented invention.
What is an Invention?
An invention is generally defined as "any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof." In regards to technology production, just about any new product or feature can be patented: hardware, software, business methods etc. Every new feature and product you have created should be checked for patentability.
If you alone came up with an idea for your product, you are the inventor and will be listed on the patent as such. If you are working on an idea/are brainstorming with a colleague and thus develop the idea together, then you will both be listed as inventors. To qualify as an inventor, you must have contributed at least one unique element to the invention. While you may be listed as an inventor, under employment you may not own the patent. When you enlist with your employer, you may find that you have signed away all rights to the idea to your employer and they will be listed on the patent as the assignee, meaning they get to control the ownership and licensing of said patent.
What can be patented?
Almost anything can be patented, however a few criteria must be met, patented inventions must meet 3 characteristics. Novel, Useful and Not Obvious. They normally last for at least 20 years from the date of registration, depending on the countries law.
Novel: The novelty requirement is fairly straightforward. Your invention must be new and ones that already exist cannot be patented. This can get slightly complicated as you do have the ability to patent new uses for existing products. This frequently happens when a new use is discovered through testing on an old pharmaceutical drug, where the new results show the drug to effectively treat a completely unrelated disease. The new use cannot be related to the original use, it has to be truly new.
Useful: The usefulness requirement covers 2 points. Your invention must have a useful purpose and it must perform its actual intended purpose. A useful purpose covers pretty much anything. A long with the benefit you wish to claim, the invention must also work in order to be useful, if the patent office you are registering with thinks that your invention might not work, they may ask for you to prove that it does.
Not Obvious: The "not obvious" requirement means that an inventive process is required. Your invention has to be varied enough from what is already available in the field in order to be patentable. This area can be fuzzy in regards to the law as they are often granted for even just slight improvements in a field. However, you should not let this requirement prevent you from attempting to patent something, seeking legal advice or talking to a patenting agent to let them tell you if they think it meets the "not obvious" requirement.
You cannot patent the laws of nature, physical phenomena and abstract ideas. For example, things like Isaac Newton's theory of universal gravitation or Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity are not patentable.
Three basic kinds of patents are allowed:
1. Utility patents - Which cover inventions that function uniquely to produce a useful result.
2. Design patents - Which cover the unique, ornamental or visible shape/surface of an object.
3. Plant patents - Which cover asexually reproducing plants.