What Is a Patent?

Learning all about patents starts with defining what a patent is. Patents are the rights given to the inventor of a process or product that provides a solution to a problem or a new way of achieving a goal. The patent is the public document that records these exclusive rights and privileges. The patent application informs the public about the details of the new invention. The word "patent" comes from a Latin expression, litterae patentes, which translates to open letters. This idea is still prevalent in legal jargon. 

The exclusive rights given by a patent keep the invention from being copied by United States individuals or companies. While inventions are protected by patents, copyrights protect photos, books, films, ideas, and other works of art. Trademarks protect logos, trade names, phrases, and slogans. 

Having a patent means the law will prosecute others from profiting from the patent holder's invention for a specific time period. The person with the patent can give others permission to use the invention within certain agreed-upon circumstances. The patent owner can also sell the patent to another person or company, who will then have rights to the invention. After the patent term ends, anyone can profit from the invention and the protection offered by the patent expires.

Invention to Patent

If you have an idea for an invention, the first step is to learn all about patents so you can file your application. Whether you plan to pursue this dream on your own or with the representation of a patent agent or attorney, you must focus your efforts on learning everything possible about the patent process. Understanding the potential pitfalls, the details required by statutes and case law, and the paths others have taken will pay off in the long run. This information will help you become a better inventor and provide meaningful support to your team throughout this journey.

What Kind of Protection Does a Patent Offer?

The patent gives the holder of the patent the sole right to choose who can and cannot profit from the use of his or her invention. This means no one can make, use, import, sell, or distribute the invention commercially without permission from the patent owner. A patent can be granted in any industry and can protect any new invention from a basic tool and computer chip to a business process or chemical compound. Most products, smartphones, or computers, for example, actually consist of several inventions together. Patent rights only apply in the region or nation that has granted the patent, and follow the laws of that territory.

What Are Novel and Useful Inventions?

The question of what constitutes a novel and useful invention under patent law has long been controversial. Unlike the discovery of something that already existed, such as a law of nature or principle, an invention must be a new creation such as: 

  • A device
  • Matter composition
  • A way of making or doing something

However, not every new creation is legally considered an invention. Historically, some courts have required that an invention does not occur during routine lab experimentation, but during a flash of genius. Others require that extraordinary mental or technical skill is involved.

In the Patent Act of 1954, Congress stated that a patent should not be granted based on how the invention was developed. Tests of whether an invention is novel are objective, not subjective. An objective test asks whether the invention has already been published, patented, or used. Historically, courts have questioned whether novelty refers to something new within the country where the patent has been applied for or within the entire world.

Over the years, courts have also considered questions such as whether new combinations of existing elements can be patented and who should get the patent if two inventions have been created simultaneously — the person who first created the invention or who first filed the patent.

Usefulness is not considered in a patent application because it is impossible to predict whether something will be useful in the future. However, some patent laws prevent items designed for immoral uses from receiving a patent. Other laws keep inventions considered trivial from being patented, while others assign these items a shorter period of patent protection. Improvement inventions are usually also given a shorter patent protection period that ends when patent protection expires on the item they are created to improve.

If you need help with patenting your invention, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.