What Every Engineer Needs to Know About Patents

Engineering patents are legal agreements made between engineers and the federal government to allow the creator of a product or an idea the ownership of said invention for a period.

Many believe that a patent allows its creator to put his or her invention into practice, but this is not the case. It just keeps others from being allowed to use the protected invention.

To have a patent approved, the invention must follow these rules:

  • It needs to be new and original.
  • It cannot be an "obvious" invention (something that anyone could figure out).
  • It must be useful, with a practical application.

Frequently, a patent is actually a form of improvement on another pre-existing invention. Therefore, to put it into practice with the intent to sell a product, a license for the original invention must be obtained.

Disclosing the Patent

A utility patent is a document that describes how to use or manufacture the invention along with a bundle of claims regarding the patent. 

The disclosure or patent description should feature sketches of the invention, showcasing the ways it will improve upon the current way of doing things or the existing product. 

Disclosures should include:

  • A written description and detailed explanation of the drawings of the invention.
  • A clear drawing (or drawings) showcasing the ingenuity of the invention.

Providing a clear description, drawing, and explanation of the product is vital to making sure the invention is used and manufactured properly. The disclosure provides a reference for other engineers.

Claims on the Patent

Claims on patents are one of the most important parts of the application or document. These lay out the coverage of the patent. This is where to look if one is trying to decide whether to sue an inventor or a manufacturer.

Changes cannot be made to any aspects of the invention that relate to its ingenuity or basic features. If something must be added to the invention, the patent has to be filed a second time as a CIP application (continuation-in-part) and the new filing date applies. 

If needed, an attorney would be happy to help prosecute a patent, which shouldn't be done alone. Patent attorneys are prepared to help with most industries. However, individuals will want to find someone who truly understands their company, inventions, and field of work. 

Saving money is always important, and legal help with patents can become costly. However, obtaining the right protection for one's intellectual property is priceless. It's important to find the best help, not just the cheapest. 

Provisional Patents

Provisional patents are a big part of the intellectual property or "IP" world. However, they are not the same as a full patent. Inventors can obtain a provisional patent to protect their ideas for as long as a year, but they do expire. Once they expire, they can be turned into a utility application noting that the product is prepared for use. 

Many engineers make the mistake of only obtaining a provisional patent, but never fully protecting their IP. Once you've filed a provisional application, the patent application date is solidified. 

How to Use a Patent

When an engineer files a patent, that specific date is considered the date of the invention, legally, thanks to the America Invents Act.  

Patents should only be filed in the country in which the invention is intended for use. Litigation in foreign countries can get very expensive for an engineer or an inventor. 

After a patent is filed, the products it is meant to cover should be labeled "patent pending" to show customers and competitors you are in the process of protecting this product. Be sure to only use this label if you have filed an application or a have a provisional patent. An inventor can be fined for improper or misleading use of the mark. 

Be sure to include the patent numbers on any products or services so everyone is made aware of the protection and to help you be able to prosecute infringement in the future. 

If you've decided that someone is infringing on your product and IP, you should:

  • Not contact the suspect in the infringement directly.
  • Not wait too long to act against the infringer (this could hurt you chances of collecting the full damages that are owed).
  • Find a lawyer to help you protect your IP and enforce the patent. 

To be sure you have all the information you need about patents, visit the USPTO website

If you need help with an engineering patent, 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.