Inventions that are novel, non-obvious and useful
Most countries grant patents to practically everything made by man and the process of making them, including machines, articles of manufacture, composition of matters and new and useful improvements of such things, provided they are truly novel, non-obvious and has some use. As mentioned above, the U.S. grants patents to business methods, and also computer programmes. But most countries do not. Also, scientific discoveries and theoretical constructs are not subject to patent protection.
What is exactly meant by novel?
"Novelty" means your invention was not, prior to the submission of your patent application, described in any publications, or otherwise disclosed to a section of the public or incorporated in products sold anywhere in the world. The novelty requirement is very stringent and an inventor may inadvertently destroy the novelty of his own invention by his own acts: disclosing it to third parties or showing it in a trade fair prior to application. Hence, it is very important to keep your invention secret prior to application. If it must be shown to third party (eg, potential investors), such third party should be required to sign a confidentiality undertaking first.
What is exactly meant by non-obvious?
"Non-obviousness" refers to the ability of the invention to produce unexpected or surprising new results-results that were not obvious to a person skilled in the prior art. To give a simplified example: Inventor A invented a new cloth material that is significantly lighter and warmer than current materials. Inventor B made a coat using this new material. It is "obvious" that someone will make a coat from the new material, because lightness and warmth are a desirable aspect of winter clothing. Thus Inventor B will not be entitled to a patent, but Inventor A will be. "Non-obviousness" is a difficult concept, and is often the most controversial criterion for patentability. Sometimes the difficulty is resolved by resorting to secondary considerations: such as the commercial success of the invention and the existence of a long-felt need before the invention was put on the market.
What is exactly meant by useful?
"Usefulness" requires that the invention must have a current, significant and beneficial use to the society. For example a process for making a chemical compound that has no current known use does not qualify for a patent. The criterion is usually interpreted broadly in favour of the inventor. A toy invention that merely entertains children will qualify.
Patents are not only for technically advanced products
Some inventions may look simple and easy to make but has tremendous market potential. For example, the tape dispenser (US Patent No. US05482182) and the tamper-indicating label (US Patent No. US05770283). In many countries such as Japan, Germany and PRC (but not the U.S.), if the invention is not technically sophisticated, you may apply for the grant of a short-term patent, also known as "utility model patent", "petty patent" or "innovation patent". The protection afforded by such patent is similar to that of patent except it is for a shorter duration (e.g., 10 years as compared to usually 20 years for patents in the PRC).
How do I know if my invention is truly novel?
It is not easy. There are some on-line searches you could try: http://www.uspto.gov (the official web site of the U.S. Patents and Trademarks Office) and http://www.delphion.com (a web site sponsored by IBM). You could search for patents granted in a particular field or a particular type of products using key words search. However, they have a lot of limitations and may not be yield an exhaustive result. For example, patents applied for but not published by the relevant patent authorities could not be searched. By the way these are very useful web sites providing valuable information on inventions in all fields of technology. Consulting these web sites could save a lot of R&D efforts.
You may also like to commission a professional search agent to conduct a search for you but again they will not guarantee that their search result is absolutely exhaustive and their cost is not insignificant compared to the cost of a patent application. Hence, many inventors simply rely on their own resources to assess the novelty of their invention.