However, obtaining a patent is an involved process that takes some research in order to make sound business decisions. Being informed about how patents work is also key to asking good questions and receiving sound advice in the future.

What Is a Patent?

A patent is a negative right, which means it protects the patent holder from the actions of another person or group. Specifically, a patent protects the intellectual property associated with an invention.

Securing a patent, however, has some drawbacks. For example, not filing a patent will keep the invention secret from competitors. Before filing a patent, also consider that:

  • A patent gives exclusive rights to the inventor, but simply inventing something does not automatically grant protections.
  • Patents provide a shorter period of protection than copyrights.
  • Patents prevent others from copying or infringing on an invention without permission.
  • A patent is granted for a maximum of 20 years, but the invention is also disclosed to the public while the patent is in effect.
  • A patent is not a guarantee of validity. A patent may be revoked if it is found that the patent is invalid.
  • Issued patents are part of the public domain.
  • All patents are accessible through the USPTO website and can be found on Google.
  • A patent can only be obtained before an invention is manufactured and sold. Public use of the invention also means it cannot be patented.

Purpose of a Patent

Patents are designed to:

  • Encourage innovation.
  • Encourage the advancement of industrial techniques.
  • Reward inventors for their originality.
  • Enable inventors — including corporations — to be reimbursed for their work.

The information in a patent covers how an invention works, its function, and its materials or how it was made. Most patents, however, aren't for inventions made from scratch. Rather, they're usually for small improvements to existing technologies. 

A patent is valuable because the owner can sell, mortgage, or license the patent to generate income, but a patent doesn't have to be used while it is in effect. A person or corporation may secure a patent simply to prevent a competitor from using the patented technology. Other benefits of a patent include:

  • Benefiting the public through information disclosed in a patent.
  • Spurring innovation and allowing the patentee to further develop an idea without fear of competitors infringing on it.
  • Increasing the value of a company acting as a patent holder.
  • Encouraging investors to provide funding by providing patent protection.
  • If an invention is released for free public use, that exact invention can't be patented in the future.
  • Assigning rights to a patent can also be a part of the negotiation process for new hires.

What Can Be Patented

Per the European Patent Convention, an invention must be new, have an “inventive step,” and have an industrial application in order to be patentable. Moreover:

  • The invention must be a product or process.
  • The invention cannot be part of the “state of the art” (part of “the sum total” of public knowledge worldwide).
  • A creative thought process must have played a part in developing the invention.
  • The invention must have an industrial purpose, not just intellectual or aesthetic value. The invention doesn't have to be developed for a specific industry, but it must be clear that it has a professional application.
  • A person cannot patent discoveries, scientific theories, and mathematical methods.

Note that a patent isn't mandatory. An inventor may keep an invention secret to avoid disclosing the information to the public and competitors.

A key factor when deciding to patent an invention is whether that invention is better protected by the rights of a patent or through confidentiality. For example, if an invention could easily be reverse engineered, the inventor would benefit from having a patent when the product goes to market. Moreover, information about an invention is disclosed in the patent application. Even if the patent is not granted, that information will be publicly available.

A patent attorney can help an inventor decide whether an invention should be patented and guide them through the process of securing a patent. These specialists are trained specifically in the areas of patent specifications, patent litigation, and patent applications and can help inventors protect and benefit from their ideas.

If you need help with researching or filing a patent, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.