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A patent is a government grant of the right to prevent others from using an invention embodied in a (generally) functional item, as that invention is claimed in a patent application. A patent holder may also prevent others from assisting in, or contributing to such activities. A patent on an invention is therefore likely to be the broadest right available under the intellectual property laws (although the exclusive right may be very narrow if the "claims" of the patent are narrow).

The right to a patent originates in the United States Constitution, Article I, 8, Clause 8:

"The Congress shall have the Power ... [t]o promote the Progress of Science and Useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

Despite the origin of the right to patent in the U.S., patents are legal monopoly, and not favored in the U.S. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will therefore closely scrutinize patent applications in light of prior art, and the courts will seize any failure of the patent applicant to meet requirements as an opportunity to refuse or invalidate a patent. The complexity of securing and policing patent rights, and to some degree the costs of such activities, may be traced to the aversion of monopoly rights in the U.S., and the wish to provide the benefits derived from inventions to all.

A patent springs to life upon grant by governmental authority. The U.S. Patent Office is empowered to issue patents in the United States. Those who satisfy applicable standards of novelty, usefulness, and definitness are entitled to a patent. For further information on the acquisition of patent rights, see Patent Acquisition.

A patent right is to be distinguished from a copyright, which applies to works of art, and also distinguished from a trademark, which applies to indicators of the source of goods or services.