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A patent is the right that the government grants to an inventor to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention in question in said country, for a given period. In the United States, the federal government guarantees this right through a set of laws and rules protected by the Constitution, which in its First Article, Eighth Section, empowers the Congress 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." The federal agency in charge of receiving applications for patent, examining them and granting the patents is the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), dependent of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The Government grants an inventor the right to a patent in exchange for revealing all the details about it: what does it exactly consist of, how to manufacture or build it and how to use it. This way, once elapsed the term of the patent, society as a whole is benefited from the invention.
A patent for an invention must not be confused with the right to manufacture, sell or use that invention. The patent provides its owner the power to exclude other people from executing such actions, unless they count with a license or an assignment by the owner. This right lasts for some years - 15 or 20 depending on the type of patent, and with some exceptions and adjustments for various circumstances - after which the invention falls into the public domain.
Counting with a patent is usually an excellent way to obtain competitive advantages and recover the investment which has been made in the development of the invention, since others are prevented from copying the idea and competing against the original inventor. Or if they wish to do so, they must pay the just price for a license or assignment. For this reason, the patent system encourages innovation. Many less companies and people would work on developing new inventions and investing in them if they didn't count on a legal protection which allows them to recover what has been invested and get a profit.