Essentially, a patent = protection.
Within the United States, Patents were authorized by the Constitution of the United States - Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8: "The Congress shall have power......To 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."
In order for something to be "patentable", it needs to be meet some basic criteria. It nees to be deemed useful/utilitarian. It needs to be novel. It needs to be non-obvious/ingenious. Novelty and non-obviousness are decided once all other publicly-known similar items have been considered and evaluated against the intended patented item. Once these three evaluative criteria have been clearly met, a patent can be applied for.
There are three types of patents: utility patents (issued for a process, a machine, an "article of manufacture", or any new useful improvement); design patents (issued for a new original, and ornmanetal design of something); and plant patents (issued for asexually reproduced, clearly distinct new variety of plants.)
A slightly odd thing when it comes to searching patents is that you should not search the databases to the right using keywords that describe how the invention will be used. Rather, you need to use keywords that describe how the invention will work. This is a slight tweak to most people's way of thinking, and sometimes can be a struggle. Try using the tips below to help you out:
There are basic places to start searching for a patent.
Below are three fantastic & official places to start.