The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will issue a patent to an applicant only if an invention meets certain requirements. One of these requirements is known as usefulness, or the utility requirement. This may seem daunting at first glance, since different people will have different impressions of whether a product or process is useful. However, patent law provides a relatively broad definition of usefulness, so applicants usually do not find this requirement hard to satisfy.
In drafting the Patent Act, Congress based the usefulness requirement on the text of the U.S. Constitution. Patent rights originate from Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution, which gives Congress the authority to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” By including the adjective “useful,” the drafters of the Constitution presumably meant that an invention must have a functional purpose. The Patent Act also integrates the word “useful” twice in its introductory section. It imposes the utility requirement only on utility patents, although these are the most common type of patent.
Understanding the Utility Requirement
The utility requirement often has been interpreted to mean that an invention must have a real use that can be demonstrated. It cannot be something that merely has a speculative use or a possible future use. This means that someone applying for a patent needs to conduct enough research and testing to show that the invention has some immediate usefulness. They will need to describe how the invention is useful in their patent application. Otherwise, the USPTO probably will deny the application.
However, a product does not need to be perfect to meet the utility requirement. If it helps achieve a certain goal, it can receive patent protection, even if it does not completely achieve that goal on its own. A stain remover does not need to remove every stain, as long as it reduces the stains overall. The product needs to work in the way that it is described and presumably cause some minor social benefit. As long as it makes life slightly easier or more efficient for some people, this is enough.
The utility requirement thus should not be intimidating. If an inventor or a company already has gone through a rigorous research and testing process, they should have a good sense of whether a product will be useful. They generally will not want to expend time and money on the process of filing a patent application if a product has no value, since they could not make a profit from it. This is true regardless of whether the product functions independently or as a component of a larger product.