Patent family size refers to the size of a collection of applications for patents that are connected through their subject matter and that follow claims of priority.

What Is a Patent Family?

Patent families combine patent applications together to help those conducting searches for patents and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), as well as international offices, keep track of the many applications coming through each year.

A patent is a form of intellectual property (IP) protection provided in the United States and countries throughout the world. Their purpose is to encourage innovation while giving credit to inventors and publishing advancements in different fields of study for everyone to learn from.

Many patents are granted through the USPTO and throughout the world. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) offers international protection for inventions and other forms of IP.

Sometimes patent families refer to patent applications and granted patents for the same invention protected in several countries or regions.

Each member of the patent family has a priority number that correlates with a priority date. When a patent application is filed in more than one place, the patent family will show all of the applications published for that particular patent and their priority dates.

How Are Patent Families Useful?

When an international company wants to keep track of developments in its line of work, it can check the USPTO database and see which patents have been granted recently in its fields as well as any patent applications currently waiting for approval. This provides a good view of the competition and innovation with the United States, but what about globally?

A patent family allows companies to keep track of innovations in its fields across the world. Patent mapping can work together with patent families to provide a thorough understanding of where certain technologies and industries are headed.

If a researcher or inventor is looking for a patent in another language, patent families make it easy to find applications for offices in other countries.

How Do Patent Families Work?

Patent families are built through the priority claims in patent applications by the EPO (European Patent Office). This is an automated process, so the families are reviewed later by an editorial team and examiners to make sure that applications were accurately grouped.

The European Patent Office groups patents into one of two families:

  • The DOCDB simple patent family, which combines any applications with matching subject matter.
  • The INPADOC extended patent family, which combines any applications with similar subject matter.

It can be tough to distinguish what determines the proper family for a patent, if it has one. Patent applications are complex, so many times the only way to fully understand the family groupings is to fully understand the applications included in each.

Sometimes the scope of coverage will vary between patent applications in one family because certain offices may reject or ask for revisions on an application where others may not.

Are Patents Important?

Patents are very important, especially when it comes to technological advancements and the health of the free market.

The commercial value of patents comes into play when a company is able to prevent its competition from benefiting off of its discovery without paying any royalties.

The technological value of patents is found especially in the publication of patent applications. Researchers can benefit from the innovations of others and continue moving forward in their industries.

Patents don't keep people from using or benefiting from one another's inventions, but they merely encourage people to give financial credit where it is due. If a company wants to use a certain patented technology or new method that it doesn't own the rights to, it can enter into a patent agreement with the patent owner and either pay a lump sum or royalties to use it.

The importance or value of particular patents depend on how much their owners keep up with them. Basically, the more license agreements connected to a patent, the more valuable it is.

The office that grants the patent, like the USPTO, doesn't enforce it. If a patent owner suspects infringement, he has to prove the infringement and, if he can, the courts will make the infringer pay for a license to use the invention. An invention can be patented but also have many people or companies infringing on that patent without any consequences.

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