The U.S. government has recently awarded patents to such inventions as cashless vending machines, remote-control houses, and, oh yes, Washington Mutual bank branches.

Earlier this week, the giant Seattle savings and loan company said it had received a patent for its branches four years after applying. The patent covers an innovative type of banking office, introduced in 2000, that is said to be more like a coffeehouse than a traditional branch of a financial institution.

Patents give holders exclusive property rights for an invention, which traditionally meant your basic better mousetrap — a new or improved product or device.

In recent years, though, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been defining inventions more broadly to cover intangible or untraditional innovations, such as genetically engineered farm animals.

WaMu says the patent, which was granted in January but not announced until this week, is the first issued in the United States for a banking office. Experts say it very well may be the first patent covering a retail store design of any type.

More here.