As an inventor, getting your next big idea is only the first step in a long road. An idea is just an idea. In transforming an idea into a product, and the product into a functional business model, one crucial step may be making the transition from an idea to protected intellectual property, such as patents.

It’s important to know that the metes and bounds of a patent are defined by the claims, and there are two different types of utility patent claims: 1) product claims; and 2) process claims. Here’s a look at product claims, process claims, how they differ, and how you can choose the appropriate mechanism to protect your intellectual property.

What is a Utility Patent?

Let’s go to the source. Title 35, Part II, Chapter 10, Subsection 101 of the United States Code defines any invention for which a utility patent may be obtained, stating: “Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent therefor, subject to the conditions and requirements of this title.”

In every utility patent application, the claims define the invention for which patent protection is sought, and the claims can be expressed as product claims or process claims. When a patent application is examined by a patent examiner, the examiner scrutinizes the claims section, as interpreted according to the disclosure in the rest of the description of the invention. If the examiner determines that the claims are novel, useful, and non-obvious, then the claims are allowed to issue into a patent.

What is a Product Claim?

A product or apparatus claim covers the structure or the functionality of an invention. For example, a product claim can define the parts of a new machine, the structure of an electronic system, or the functional components of an apparatus.

Obtaining a product claim in an issued utility patent is considered to be a powerful way of protecting your invention because it’s usually pretty obvious if someone tries to copy your invention. For instance, if your apparatus claim recites a machine comprising A + B + C, then your competitor would infringe on your product claim if they were to produce a similar machine comprising A + B + C. Similarly, if your product claim defines your invention as an object comprising a component A that performs a task X, a component B that performs a task Y, and a component C that performs a task Z, then a competitor would infringe on your product claim if they were to produce an object comprising components that perform X, Y, and Z, even if they don’t use components A + B + C.

What is a Process Claim?

A process or method claim covers the way you do something, such as perform a task, create a product, or process data. For instance, the way you process certain materials to form a product, encode and decode data within a specific framework, or perform facial recognition using an imaging system are all examples of processes that may be described with a process claim. While a bit more controversial, software and business methods also fall under the process claim category.

You might hear from some people that process claims aren’t as valuable as system claims because they are easier to engineer around than system claims. While that might be true in some instances, there are ways to help your process claims have just as much “teeth” as system claims. For example, if you’ve got a unique piece of equipment that performs a specialized task, you can protect your equipment using both system claims and process claims related to performing the specialized task.

The Take-Away

As an innovator, your IP is key to the future of your business. The more strategically you protect your innovations, the easier time you will have in commercializing your unique product and discouraging copycats from eating your lunch. Understanding patent jargon shouldn’t slow you down.

Protecting your intellectual property starts with understanding what to protect. Ready to turn your intellectual property into your greatest asset? Click here to get started.