An Introduction to Patents

Patented inventions are all around us: in the computers we use, the cars we drive—even your drinkware may be patented. Wherever you are reading this, it is likely you can look around and spot dozens of items that are covered by one or more patents.

What is a patent? The US Constitution tells us that a patent is the right of an inventor to the exclusive benefits of their invention for a limited time. From such a simple definition comes a robust and complex regulatory framework for recognizing, granting, and enforcing patents. The range of inventions that can be and have been patented is almost beyond the realm of imagination. Many years have passed since the first U.S. patent was granted on July 31, 1790 to Samuel Hopkins for his new method for making potash. Recently, patents have been granted for intelligent video archiving and gaze assisted object recognition.  We’ve come a long way.

How do you get one? As stated above, the U.S. has had a patent system in place since 1790, but the current system bears very little resemblance to the first one. To be awarded a patent, you must first invent something—a method, article, composition of matter, or a machine. This is not enough, however. You must also show that your invention is new, nonobvious, and useful. These terms are very specifically defined in patent law and heavily scrutinized in patent applications. Missing just one element disqualifies your invention from patent protection.

What are the most common types of patents? The two most common types of patents are design patents and utility patents. Design patents protect an invention’s ornamental designs. Utility patents protect an invention’s functional elements.

What rights does a patent owner have? Ancient Greece had a form of patent protection because they recognized, as countless generations after them have, that the best motivator of innovation is the knowledge that the inventor will be allowed the opportunity to exploit their invention to the exclusion of others for a limited time. To be clear, a patent does not grant the inventor the right to make or sell their invention. It grants the inventor the right to prevent others from making it, selling it, using it, or importing a product that is covered by the claims of the inventor’s patent.

How long does patent protection last? Patent protection is limited in time. Under the current law, the owner or inventor has 20 years from the date of the application to exploit their invention. While the law recognizes the right of the inventor to exploit their invention, it also recognizes that allowing an indefinite stranglehold is anti-competitive and detrimental. The 20 year term seeks to strike a balance.

Securing patent protection can give you a critical competitive advantage in the marketplace. Our firm understands this reality and we are ready and able to assist you with any patent law matters you may have. Contact the firm today to get started.

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