What is a machine under United States patent law?

What is a machine under United States patent law?

For a patent application to be granted in the United States the subject of the patent application must fall into at least one of the principle categories of subject matter eligible for a patent. The four principal categories are a process (also termed a method), a machine, an article of manufacture and a composition of matter.

Any apparatus is considered a machine under United States patent law.  The dictionary definition of apparatus is a complex structure within an organization or system.  The United States Supreme Court has defined the term “machine” as “a concrete thing, consisting of parts, or of certain devices and combination of devices.” Burr v. Duryee, 68 U.S. (1 Wall.) 531, 570 (1863). This “includes every mechanical device or combination of mechanical powers and devices to perform some function and produce a certain effect or result.” Corning v. Burden, 56 U.S. 252, 267 (1854).

The reason it is important to learn how the United States Patent Office defines the word machine is to understand what can and cannot be patented as a machine.  In general the laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract ideas are not patentable subject matter.  Electrical signals are not considered machines, but the devices that generate electrical signals may be considered machines.

The following inventions would be considered machines by the United States Patent and Trademark Office:

  • An automobile;
  • A robotic arm;
  • A bicycle;
  • A drink vending machine.

A machine may be protected by a utility patent, but not a design patent.

A machine is closely related to an article of manufacture.  What distinguishes a machine from an article of manufacture is that a machine has many moving parts which interact with each other while an article of manufacture has few or no have moving parts.  There is no set number of moving parts or a hard rule on when an article of manufacture changes into a machine.  Generally the United States Patent Office will not give an inventor a hard time if the inventor files a utility patent application using the wrong word to describe the invention.  An experienced patent attorney will generally draft a utility patent application using the correct word to describe the invention and if the patent examiner at United States Patent Office disagrees with the term used in the patent application, the application can be corrected.  The reverse is not true in the case of design patents, machines as a whole are not eligible for design patents.

It should be noted that if each element of a machine is presented in a separate design patent application as separate article of manufacture, each element of the machine may possibly be granted a design patent, if the other conditions of a design patent are met. The practice of breaking a machine apart into separate components to get design patents on each separate component is not a new concept but the practice has now become a hot topic because of litigation between large companies like Apple and Samsung.

Filing for a patent is a complex process and should be done with the assistance of an experienced patent attorney.