What is a Patent?
A patent is a legal document issued by the government giving an inventor the exclusive right to make, use, and sell an invention for a specific number of years. Exclusive means that nobody else can use the invention without the permission of the inventor. The number of years a patent is good for depends on the type of patent. Most countries have patent systems, although the patent terms and types of patents vary from country to country. The reason there is a patent system is to encourage inventors to create new inventions. Without a patent, someone could make money from copying another person’s ideas. In exchange for the patent, the inventor must disclose to the public all of the information about the invention. Sometimes, an inventor decides not to obtain a patent for an invention because he does not want to disclose information about it. This is called a trade secret. A trade secret is any information, design, process, or formula that is not generally known and gives its owner an advantage over competitors. An example of a trade secret is the formula for Coca-Cola soda.
History of the Patent
The first patent in the United States was issued for the manufacture of salt in 1641 by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1789, the Constitution of the United States gave Congress the power to establish federal patent laws. The current patent law is administered by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (Patent Office), an agency within the Department of Commerce.
Types of Patents
In the United States, there are three kinds of patents – utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. A utility patent covers inventions of machines, methods, and manufactured products, plus new uses of inventions. The term of a utility patent is 20 years. A design patent covers the appearance of an article and has a term of 14 years. A plant patent is available for non-pollinating plants and has a term of 17 years. A non-pollinating plant is one that is reproduced by means other than from seeds.
How to Qualify for a Patent
To qualify for a patent, an invention must be new, useful, and must not be obvious to a person of ordinary skill in that field of work. An invention is not patentable if it was known or used by others in the United States, written about by anyone, or was in public use or on sale any place in the world more than one year before the application for the patent. Most governments grant a patent to the person who first applied for it, but in the United States, a patent is granted to the applicant who completed the invention first. Therefore, it very important for inventors to keep detailed notes of their inventions and the dates that they worked on them. They need to keep these notes to prove the date of the invention in case another inventor applies for a patent for the same thing.
In order to get a patent, the inventor must prepare a patent application. Patent law is very complicated, so most inventors hire a patent attorney to assist in the application process. Before filing an application, the inventor or his attorney conducts a search to see if a patent or a publication already describes the invention. A patent application must include a specification, a drawing, and a filing fee. The filing fees are $710 for a utility patent, $320 for a design patent, and $490 for a plant patent. The specification must include a complete description of the invention and how to make and use it. The Patent Office reviews the patent application, and if the three basic legal tests are met, a patent will be issued. If more than one person works together on the invention, the patent is issued in each of their names. Utility patent holders who wish to keep their patents in force must pay additional fees 3˝, 7˝, and 11˝ years after their patents are issued or the patent expires. After the patent has expired, anyone may make, use, or sell the invention without the permission of the inventor.
Getting Your Patent
On average, it takes about a year for the Patent Office to process an application. Most inventors start to produce their invention and begin to sell it while the application is being processed. The product is labeled "Patent Pending" or "Patent Applied For" to discourage others from copying it. Once an invention is granted a patent, it is given a patent number. This number must be put on the product label.
An inventor may sell all or part of the rights of his invention. This is called an assignment and must be recorded with the Patent Office. An inventor might sell his patent if he could not afford to manufacture the product himself. Also, some patents improve the process of manufacturing a product, such as a car. In this case, the inventor would sell his patent to an automobile manufacturer. The owner of a patent may also grant licenses to others who pay a fee, royalties, or both for use of the invention. Royalties are payments that are based on sales (for example, 1% of sales). If an inventor with a patent dies, the patent goes to his family.
Copying a patented invention without permission is called infringement. The person owning the patent may sue the infringer in federal court to recover damages (money lost by the owner because his invention was copied). The owner may also obtain an injunction that requires the infringer to stop using the invention. However, once an owner sells a patented item, the purchaser of that item is allowed to use it or resell it.
Patents in Other Countries
A patent issued in the United States is not valid in other countries. If an inventor wants protection for his invention in another country, he must file a separate application. The Paris Convention of 1883 was the first treaty to deal with international patent law. Today, this treaty has been adopted by about 110 countries that agree to give citizens of the other countries the same rights to obtain a patent as it gives to its own citizens. The Paris Convention gives an inventor an extra year to file for a patent in other countries. This is useful to inventors because it takes a lot of time and costs a lot money to file for a patent. Depending on how successful the invention is, an inventor may or may not decide to apply for patents in other countries.
Patents have encouraged inventors to create new products and ways of doing things for over 300 years. The patent system protects the inventor’s ideas so others cannot make money from copying them. Since its beginning, the Patent Office has issued over 5 million patents. This has helped our country greatly to advance in technology, health care, and many other fields.
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