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The biggest myth about small-town America

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The nation's most innovative county is not a tech hub like Silicon Valley or even Manhattan's Silicon Alley. It's Guthrie County in Iowa, a prairie community an hour's drive west of Des Moines. The Northeast, the Upper Midwest and California's coast remain the workhorses of invention in the country, filing half of all patents, according to data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the Census Bureau.

Residents of the 10,000-person Guthrie County filed 82 utility patents in 2013, giving the county the distinction of most innovative in relation to population that year. Because of how the U.S. Patent Office compiles their information, data from 2013 are the most recent available. Most of the patents filed in Guthrie are for soybean and corn cultivars, the industrial agriculture creations of companies like Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer.

In gross figures, California is still king of innovation, making up a full 27 percent of patents filed in 2013. Technology is the main driver of patents in California, including telecommunications and data-processing tools. Patents for medical purposes are also big in the Golden State, from surgical instruments to pharmaceuticals. At the same time, the largest patent categories in Iowa are for "multicellular living organisms" and vehicle accessories.

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Most of the top patent-producing counties by population are those with significant research and tech institutions, like Minnesota's Olmstead County, which houses the Mayo Clinic (328 patents per 100,000 residents), and Santa Clara County California, with Stanford University and Silicon Valley (756 patents per 100,000 people, the highest rate in the country).

Utility patents, or "patents of invention," are the most common type, accounting for 92 percent of patents issued in 2013. Utility patents are granted for anything from a machine to a method or a new and useful "composition of matter." A utility patent gives the inventor 20 years of exclusive production and sale of the item, as long as they pay maintenance fees.

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There are also patent categories for design patents—ornamental designs—and plant patents for particular strains of flora. Since 2001 the U.S. Patent Office has allowed plant genomes to be patented as utility patents.

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The number of utility patents filed has more than doubled in the past decade, leading some economists to criticize the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office of lax scrutiny of the merits of patent applications. It's also argued that frivolous patent lawsuits by so-called patent trolls are clogging the courts and stifling innovation.

A recent study from PwC reported that the U.S. saw a record 6,500 patent troll trials in 2013, 25 percent more than in 2012. After years of Congressional inaction on the patent front, the House is currently considering the "Protecting American Talent and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015," or the PATENT Act, which includes legislation aimed at curbing patent troll lawsuits.