Patent Basics

Are patents global? These specific legal rights that protect an invention are usually unique to the nation or region where the patent owner applied for protection. Patents can be products or processes and must offer a new solution to a problem or a new way of doing something. The inventor must disclose technical information about the creation to the public in the patent application to get a patent. Patents that are valuable include all the information a user needs to benefit from the invention. Patents are worthless if they only include details that are inconsequential, allowing another person to get around the patent protection by making the same product in a new way. However, patent offices don't evaluate the value of the patent when issuing a patent.

Every patent must include the following key elements: 

  • A detailed description of the invention, including illustration
  • A list of similar, publicly disclosed inventions (known as prior art)
  • Detailed claims about which parts of the invention should be patent protected

The owner of the patent can allow others to use their invention under negotiated licensing terms, or sell the invention to another person who would then become the patent owner. At the end of the patent period, legal protection expires and the creation becomes public domain, which means it can be used commercially by any individual or business. While the patent is in effect, however, the patent owner has sole discretion over who can make, distribute, use, import, export, or sell his or her invention. Patent protection allows the inventor to enjoy a profit and recoup his or her development costs. This is an incentive to develop improved products and processes for societal advancement. Most countries worldwide recognize this concept and offer some type of patent protection. Patents can be granted in any industry, from computer technology to household products and beyond. Products, chemical compounds, and processes can all be patented. Most inventions, such as a smartphone, are actually the result of several patents working together.

Patent protection is time-limited, typically for 20 years from the date on which the patent application was filed. Because patent laws vary substantially by region, a registered patent attorney can help you navigate the requirements of the country or region where you're seeking patent protection. Even if you have a valid patent, you could lose the rights if it is challenged in court. If you are able to win a court case, however, you have proven that your patent is valid.

Patent rights are typically enforced in court when an owner of the patent sues an accused infringer. In most countries, the court has the power to prevent patent infringement, but the burden of identifying and acting against infringement belongs to the patent owner.

Exclusive patent rights only apply in the nation or region where the inventor has applied for patent protection. No international patent will provide global protection; instead, the patent applicant must apply to every country where he or she desires legal protection for the invention. To obtain and maintain a patent in 200 countries would cost approximately $2 million, a sum far beyond the means of most small businesses and independent investors.

Each applicant must be made with either the nation's specific patent office or a regional office that handles patents for several countries. Current regional patent offices include the African Intellectual Property Organization, the Eurasian Patent Organization, the Patent Office of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization, and the European Patent Office. Regional systems allow the inventor to simultaneously apply for patent protection in one or more member states. If the patent is granted, the inventor receives the same protection as would be given if he or she applied to each country individually.

In the early stages of filing for a patent, the best way to keep costs down is by applying through the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Any resident of a nation who has signed the Patent Cooperation Treaty is eligible to apply for international patent protection through WIPO. Most inventors choose to seek patent protection in a few key countries.

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