How Long Is a Patent Good For?

If you've ever asked, "how long is a patent good for," the answer is, it depends on the type. Patents need to be renewed every so often, and forgetting to do so allows competitors to take your ideas and pirate them for their own gain.

Patents can make or break a company. They are the only way to keep other companies from taking your ideas, your brand, and profiting off the hard work you put in. It's important to know the rules and laws surrounding your patent, especially the term of the patent.

Step One: Know the Patent Type

A patent is basically a monopoly, but it is a short-term one granted by the government. To maintain the patent, the owner must pay a fee 3.5 years, 7.5 years, and 11.5 years after that patent has been issued. In most European countries, this fee must be paid yearly. Failure to pay this fee results in the patent becoming abandoned. A patent acts as the shortest lasting type of protection for intellectual property.

Each type of patent carries different rules under United States law. For example, different types of patents have different durations. In the United States, the law requires all utility and plant patents filed on or after June 8, 1995, to have protection that lasts at least 20 years from the application file date. The term for this patent provision is called the "twenty-year term." Use a utility patent when you want to protect a composition, machine, or process.

More often than not, people end up filing for utility patents as they are the most common type of patent and last for 20 years. A design patent remains valid as long as 14 to 15 years from the date the patent is granted. Design patents strictly protect the particular decorative features of a manufacturer's item, as opposed to its role.

Determining the term of a patent gets complicated, however, if you have more than one filing date. If you have more than one filing date, be careful; it can become unclear exactly how long the term is for the patent.

Step Two: Know Your Filing Date

To know the duration of your patent term, keep track of the patent filing date. Thankfully, the patent office records filing dates and keeps them as a part of the patent record, as well as in public databases. All patents have filing dates. According to the law, a patent lets the holder keep others from creating, selling, or using the invention for the specified period of time.

When you are granted a patent, the government is basically allowing you to have a short-term monopoly over an invention. This monopoly will last for the duration of the patent. To keep your patent valid, however, you must pay an annual maintenance fee. If you hold a valid U.S. patent, you can control access to your invention. Patent rights allow you to restrict who can use, make, or sell your invention.

If you fail to pay your required annual maintenance fee, the USPTO will consider your patent abandoned. Basically, this means that you will no longer have exclusive rights to your invention, and other people can use and profit from your idea. Patents have the shortest lifespan of any type of intellectual property protections.

Provisional Patent Application

When filing a provisional patent application, it's important to remember that the domestic priority date does not have an impact on when the 20-year term of your full, non-provisional patent will begin. This is described more fully in 35 U.S.C. 119(e).

The 20-year term of a non-provisional patent is based on the filing date of this application. In your application, however, you can claim a priority date based on your provisional application. For instance, if you file a provisional application and then later file an application for a full utility patent, you would have two different filing dates. Provisional patent applications will allow you to protect your invention for one year.

Provisional applications can help work in the owner's favor by getting the ball rolling. The benefit of this is it's quick and inexpensive. It buys the owner a year to continue running experiments, researching, and even building prototypes before they buy into a longer-term patent. Later on, they can file a non-provisional application. The filing date starts on the provisional application date if you choose to go that route. Otherwise, it starts on the non-provisional, or utility, application filing date.

Keep in mind, filing a provisional application means your patent term will expire earlier, up to as much as a year. Essentially, you are trading a year of your patent term for a year of work on your invention.

Effect of Patent Pending

Having a patent pending status, much like having a provisional patent application, ultimately limits patent life. The date you file for a patent pending status acts as the filing date for the overall patent. With all these different filing dates, the first one is often named the priority date. Patent pending cannot actually enforce a patent. The office must allow claims as well as issue your inventions patent before any enforcement can ensue. Substantial delay from the patent office results in that amount of delay being added onto your patent's term time. The term for this is "patent term extension." This includes time waiting in line for an application to be prosecuted.

When You Filed

The timing of your application can determine the length of the patent life. When it comes to applications for utility patents, United States law was not quite in line with other countries until June 8, 1995. Before that, patents expired 17 years after the filing date. Applications for design patents have a term of 15 years if they were filed after or May 13, 2015. The start date for design patents is the day the inventor's claims were granted. The complicated rules of patents can seem confusing, but the laws remain simple and straightforward.

Acquiring a Patent

To acquire a patent:

  • One must contact the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to file a patent application.
  • The application gets examined by a patent examiner.
  • They determine if the invention meets the standards and legal requirements for a patent.

If so, the examiner approves. Only after this does the Patent and Trademark Office sends a patent certificate to the owner/inventor. Once the patent is received, the inventor must show the details of the invention's creation and design, including how to apply the design to be constructed tangibly. Once the patent expires, anybody can commercially use the design.

Determining the Effective Date

The term of a patent begins the day the application's filed at the Patent and Trademark Office, not the day it's approved. This helps to deter others that may want to exploit an invention during the review of the patent application. The Patent and Trademark Office will occasionally grant a holder of a patent a later effective date whenever a delay comes up when examining the patent for the application.

Patent Expiration

As explained before, a patent expires at the end of its term. There are ways in which it can become invalid before the term ends, though. This may happen if the owner does not pay the United States Patent and Trademark Office its maintenance fees. The Office grants a grace period of six months in case the holder cannot pay right on time. It can also happen if a court decides the patent does not meet legal requirements of an approved patent during an infringement lawsuit.

Continuing Applications

Some patents can be granted on a continuation if the filing date was before June 8, 1995. Patents granted in this method will have a 20-year term. This term will start at the earliest filing date for either an international or a United States application.

Foreign Priority

An application which claims foreign priority comes from another nation to the United States but has a term which stems from the United States filing date, not the priority date.

Patents Are Exclusively National

Patents cannot be extended across nations. For example, your U.S. patent has no validity in Canada. Your patent in Germany cannot stop a French inventor from pirating your idea. There are some exceptions; certain countries have treaties that allow them to grant patents that can be valid under all parties that signed the treaty. Among these includes the European Patent Convention.

The European Patent Convention

The European Patent Convention was formed in 1973 between:

  • United Kingdom
  • Turkey
  • Sweden
  • Portugal
  • The Netherlands
  • Monaco
  • Luxembourg
  • Liechtenstein
  • Italy
  • Ireland
  • Greece
  • France
  • Finland
  • Spain
  • Denmark
  • Germany
  • Cyprus
  • Switzerland
  • Belgium
  • Austria

Any patent under this treaty is granted by the European Patent Office, or the EPO, which is located in Munich.

This uniform treaty helps inventors by requiring them to only follow one set of rules and procedure in one location, the EPO. Once that's finished, they simply have to name which countries of the EPC they want to have a patent. European patents have the same rights as national patents do in the countries that are part of the EPC. To annul such a patent, the proceedings must happen separately for each country the patent exists in. An exception to this exists in the first nine months after the patent has been granted; in this case, anybody can start a procedure at the European Patent Office to annul the patent in all countries it exists in at the same time.

The EU does not have a patent law that applies to all nations. Unfortunately, an inventor must apply for a patent in every individual country in Europe that they wish to hold a monopoly over their invention.

What's the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization)?

The World Intellectual Property Organization publishes applications under the Patent Cooperation Treaty or the PCT. The Patent Cooperation Treaty gives countries around the globe a unified procedure for patent filing. This allows a patent seeker to file once centrally with the organization, get a literature search, and then go to the various countries they wish to have a patent in. Central Filing happens at the IB, or International Bureau, a bureau under the WIPO.

The International Bureau publishes the text just as it was filed by the applicant, except for possible amendments to claims if an issue arises with the literature search. Because applicants can claim anything, it's possible for their claims to have been invented long ago.

The application must claim which nations it wants a patent in. Once the literature search is over and the claim published, the application gets sent to the nations indicated. Then the applicant defends their claims in each national office to get a patent.

Can Computer Software Be Patented?

Yes. In the United States and Europe, computer software can be considered as an invention that can be patented. These kinds of patents are being granted frequently. Any new technology that seems to improve public domain gets considered. Any invention can be patented. The only "restrictions" are that these inventions must be "made by man," useful, and create something tangible and concrete.

Most modern electronic devices, such as computers and televisions, make use of inventions protected by in-force patents. Under the European Patent convention, almost any type of computer software is eligible for a patent. Certain programs were once excluded from patentability, but this has changed in recent years.

Can Business Methods Be Patented?

They can in the United States. In Europe, it is only allowed if the business method can help the public domain with solving a technical problem. This excludes any issue in the field of finance or economics. Usually, anything involving "technical considerations" can be rephrased somehow to be considered a technical problem. Technical, in these cases, refers to having to do with a field of technology, rather than the technicalities of a business method.

For example, a business method which takes out a life insurance policy for an employee as a method of reducing his contribution to his pension would not be considered a solution to a technical problem. A business method using computers to help manage an auction (even though an auction would be considered in the field of economics) would be considered technical enough for a patent.

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