What Is a Patent?

Patent protection means that the invention exclusively belongs to the inventor. These exclusive rights can be licensed, bought, and sold. Three types of patent protection are recognized in the United States:

  • Utility patents cover machines, processes, manufactured articles, matter compositions, and improvements.
  • Design patents cover original decorative designs for manufactured articles.
  • Plant patents are given for new and distinct plant varieties that can be asexually reproduced.

While the U.S. once gave priority to the first inventor to come up with a new invention, they now give priority to the first person to file a patent application for an invention.

What Are the Basic Requirements to File a Patent?

Patent requirements vary depending on international agreements and national laws. In most nations, you must include one or more claims that establish the invention as unique. A patent application can have many claims as long as each designates a specific property right that can be protected. These claims must be useful, non-obvious, and novel. In most countries, patent rights prevent others from distributing, importing, selling, using, or manufacturing the invention without permission.

The World Trade Organization has agreed that all WTO member states must allow patent protection for all invention in all technical fields for at least 20 years. However, nations maintain their own laws about what inventions can be patented.

Can My Invention Be Patented?

If you can answer yes to the following questions, your invention may be eligible for patent protection:

  • Did you create the invention yourself? A patent can only be filed by the actual inventor who contributed at least one novel, non-obvious concept. If you invented something on behalf of an employer, however, the company you work for may own the invention. However, the patent would be issued in your name with contractual rights designated to the employer.
  • Is the idea useful? This means it must provide some functional benefit.
  • Is it marketable? This means that a segment of the population must be willing to pay money to purchase the invention. You may want to conduct market research to determine whether the invention has the potential for profitability.
  • Is the idea novel? This means no one else has already patented a similar invention.
  • Is the idea non-obvious? This means that a person with typical skill in your industry would not already know about the idea. The court will examine differences between the invention and existing industry knowledge.
  • Does it fall into one of the four general patent classes? These include articles of manufacture, processes and methods, compositions of matter, and machines.

In addition to these general questions, certain inventions are not eligible for U.S. patent protection. You cannot patent an abstract idea, a law of nature, a non-useful object, or a physical phenomenon.

Why Do I Need to Do a Patent Search?

You must ensure that your idea is novel and that a similar patent has not already been issued. It can be difficult for an inexperienced person to do a thorough patent search, but tools exist that can help. Start with industry journals and articles, or contact a local Patent and Trademark Depository Library. The United States Patent and Trademark Office in Washington D.C. also offers public access to its archives. A registered patent agent or attorney can also help you search for prior art. If another patent exists and your invention is not novel, patent protection will be denied.

What Are the Benefits of Patent Protection?

Patent protection is important if you're planning to manufacture, market, and sell your invention on your own. It allows you to protect your business investment by legally pursuing others who attempt to copy your idea. In addition, having a patent increases the value of your invention if you plan to license the rights to sell it to another company.

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