What Are Patent Rights?

Patent rights are a set of intellectual property and financial rights that the government grants to inventors for a certain period of time when a patent is filed to protect against patent infringement.

There are three types of patents available in the United States:

  • Utility Patent — covers a product or process's functional aspects
  • Design Patent — covers the overall design of useful objects
  • Plant Patent — covers new varieties of living plants

Sometimes, intellectual property law can be an unclear field. Disagreements happen when inventors, courts, citizens, and researchers debate if things such as human genes fall under patent law. This results in a clash between patent rights and patient rights.

It's important to remember that a patent doesn't give the patent holder the right to make the invention. Instead, it gives the patent owner the right to keep others from producing, selling, importing, or using that invention. This means certain processes can fall under patent law, such as a process that handles how to map the human genome.

Processes not eligible for patenting include:

  • Naturally occurring phenomena
  • Laws of nature
  • Abstract ideas
  • Business methods
  • Atomic weapons
  • Inventions used for illegal purposes
  • Human organisms
  • Tax strategies

Inventions that qualify for U.S. patents must be new and non-obvious. They must be inventive and appropriate to the industry or provide solutions to technical problems. In other words, they must embody scientific advancement. This non-obvious requirement didn't appear in the Patent Act until the 1952 revisions. But it has always been considered a requirement for patentability dating back to the earliest American patent system. In fact, the concept of obviously has been part of U.S. law since the 1850 Hotchkiss v. Greenwood Supreme Court ruling.

The types of inventions or processes you can patent include:

  • Scientific theories, discoveries, or mathematical formulas
  • Inventions
  • Aesthetic design creations, methods, principles, plans, or rules of games
  • Computer programs and information
  • Plant or animal production processes
  • Animal species
  • Therapeutic or surgical methods of treating animals or humans
  • Diagnostic methods

Since the patent prevents anyone else from using the invention, the patent owners are free to make, sell, or use the invention themselves without worrying about competitors making money off their ideas. A patent license agreement gives you this permission.

Unlike copyright law, patents do not protect ideas. Patent law doesn't care if the person trespassing on the patent protection developed the same invention based on similar ideas. All that matters is that he or she is intruding on a patent claim. In contrast, copyright law keeps someone from copying idea expressions, which are not the same things as inventions.

Why Are Patent Rights Important?

Patent rights are important in keeping non-patent holders from trespassing on someone else's rights. If you have a patent on your invention, you can sue someone in court for infringing on your claim. As a result, you can ask for financial damages during the period when patent law covers your invention.

Infringement is determined on a case-by-case basis. But since it often means having the other person showing up in court, patent rights alone are enough of a restriction to keep your invention safe.

The History of Patent Rights

James Madison first examined the usefulness of patents in Federalist Paper No. 43. A vocal supporter of strong patent rights, Madison even convinced Thomas Jefferson that without these rights, inventors would have no reason to invent or to take risks.

The Constitution gives Congress the power to award patents. This is found in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, which states:

  • "To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries."

Basically, patent rights are American rights. They're a way to promote innovation and ideas. While a patent may have a limited time frame, inventors, entrepreneurs, and companies have a good reason to research and to develop new products.

To obtain patent rights in the United States, you will need to file a provisional patent application (not always required), a non-provisional patent application, and any application specific to your idea, process, or product, such as a design or a plant application. You also have the right to file an international application to get patent rights across the world.

Reasons to Consider Taking Advantage of Patent Rights

Getting a patent means you have ownership over your invention. This is important if you want to enjoy all the rights, interests, and titles given to that patent. When you have a patent for your invention or process, you can:

  • Sue a patent infringer (someone trying to make money off your patented product),
  • Sell the patent rights to gain money,
  • License the patent rights to third parties to collect royalty payments,
  • Make, sell, offer for sale, or use the product covered in the patent for yourself.

Remember that even if you invented a product but don't hold the patent for it, you do not have these rights. This can happen when a large corporation hires you to research and produce innovative ideas, which could lead to an invention that the company patents. This is the difference between patent inventorship and patent ownership.

The United States is a first-to-file country. This means that whoever filed the patent application first gets the patent rights. This may or may not be the inventor. Joint inventors can enjoy patent rights as long as all the inventors are named in the patent application.

Joint patent ownership can have its downsides, though. If two or more inventors are listed on the patent application, you may have to deal with:

  • A co-owner starting a competing company, which wouldn't count as an infringement,
  • A co-owner independently licensing the patent rights to another person or business without buying out the other co-owners or asking their permission,
  • All co-owners having to sue an infringer to win a lawsuit.

If you do have a patent with co-owners, forming a company is a good solution to resolve problems. You may also want to consider forming a contract between the joint inventors or reaching a consulting agreement. While co-ownership may seem complicated, it's nice to know all inventors involved in a project get the same patent rights.

Joint Ownership Outside the United States

Very few countries follow the U.S. practice of allowing joint patent owners to license their patents without consent from the other party. In fact, countries such as China, Australia, Japan, India, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands have certain provisions in their patent laws that deal with co-owner issues. In countries like Germany and Canada, joint ownership is addressed as part of the general law.

More commonly, other countries have provisions in patent law stating that licensing is only permitted with the co-owner's consent.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I obtain patent rights for my invention?

You will need to fill out a provisional patent application and/or a non-provisional patent application and submit it to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

  • Why should I patent my invention?

Patenting your invention protects your financial interests by keeping others from using your invention for their own gains. Patents also make inventions public so that everyone can benefit from their use. Patents also help to recognize and reward creativity.

  • Is there anything I can't patent?

An invention must be new, innovative, and non-obvious. This means nobody else could easily come up with the same idea. There are plenty of other things not open to patent protection, including natural laws, abstract ideas, physical phenomena, and atomic weapons.

  • Are there any limits to my patent rights?

Your exclusive right of exploitation is only valid in countries where you've registered the patent and been granted protection rights. The patent's duration also limits your rights. In most cases, patent protection lasts for up to 20 years, depending on the country.

  • What is patent infringement?

Patent infringement is the unauthorized making, selling, using, or importing of a protected patent within the United States for the duration of the patent's term. The scope of protection offered is determined by the claims section of the issued patent. In most cases, a patent specifies multiple claims. As such, only one claim needs to be infringed for the patent holder to take legal action.

In fact, most countries abide by a "doctrine of equivalence." This means infringement can still occur if an element of the infringing protect is equal to an element in the existing claim. This could happen if it doesn't occur literally in the infringing product. How strong of a case the equivalence rule is depends on how well you covered your bases in the patent application.

With all these options and benefits given to patent holders, you may still have questions about patent rights and how they will help you. Ask your questions on UpCounsel's marketplace to get free custom quotes from the top 5 percent of lawyers are ready to serve you. With backgrounds from law schools such as Yale Law and Harvard Law, along with years of legal experience, lawyers on UpCounsel have worked with companies such as Google and Airbnb and are ready to work with you.