What Is a Patent?

A patent refers to a protection for the discoveries, inventions, or procedures of the inventor granted by the law.

Patents vs. Copyrights and Trademarks

Patent law provides broad and significant protection for a certain duration of time to make sure that there is an incentive for inventions. In this context, a patent may seem more similar to a copyright than a trademark. However, the intentions and ideas underlying patent law differ significantly from those driving other aspects of intellectual property law.

The purpose of copyrights is to encourage the creation of work that is original. Copyright protection starts upon the creation of the work. Also, copyright protection applies whether or not the work is ever revealed to the public. Once a copyrighted work is revealed to the public, the work is in the open for everyone to regard. The same is true when it comes to the patent process for technology.

There are very few obstacles getting in the way of those who want copyright protection. Essentially, just about any original work that does not infringe upon another copyrighted work is protected under copyright law. On the other hand, it is difficult to receive a patent. The patent process is often lengthy and often involves a dialogue between the entity filing the application and the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Another difference between copyright protection and patent protection is that the former can easily be renewed. On the other hand, the initial duration of the patent protection encompasses all of the protection that the law can provide. Upon the expiration of the patent, the invention enters the public domain.

The purpose of trademarks is to protect intellectual property, which inherently possess no value. On the other hand, patented inventions possess a value. This value is based on the utility and uniqueness of the invention. Before trademarks can offer any value to the owner, the trademark must be associated with goods or services. 

One similarity between trademarks and patents is that it is necessary to pass a screening process before receiving statutory protection for either a trademark or a patent. The level of scrutiny is relatively low for trademarks while it is much higher for patents.

Just like for copyright, trademark protection can apply even if the inventor didn't formally register the trademark. However, this is not the case when it comes to patent protection.

A similarity between copyrights, patents, and trademarks is that the law for all three originated centuries ago in Great Britain.

Origins of Patent Law and the Incentive Theory

It is possible to trace the idea of patent law as far back as the 9th century B.C. in ancient Greece.  However, one of the most vital pieces of legislation in the history of patents is the English Statute of Monopolies. The Parliament passed the Statute of Monopolies to end monopolies, which stifled competition. 

However, for about a decade, the Statute issued "letters patent" to allow for limited monopolies. This measure was seen as a way of balancing the importance of providing incentives for inventions with the distaste for monopolies. While monopolies usually don't offer any innovative benefits, inventors need to have an incentive to create innovations that benefit society.

Modern Patent Law

Patent law was a commonality among all of the American colonies. Therefore, patent law was discussed at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Discussion of patent law during this convention led to Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution. This granted Congress the authority to grant patents to encourage the progress of science and the arts. Congress passed the legislation for patent law almost immediately. Since then, there have only been four significant changes to patent law. The first two major changes led to the creation of the Patent Office and addressed the patent process. 

Another major change was the Federal Courts Improvement Act of 1982, which led to the creation of the Federal Circuit Court. The court possesses jurisdiction over many different types of cases, such as appeals from patent disputes and appeals from PTO decisions. The Federal Circuit Court has expanded the list of the types of materials that are eligible for patents under Title 35.

Contact an Attorney

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