Updated November 18, 2020:

What Are Public Domain Patents?

Public domain patents are created when a patent is now publicly usable. The patent may be in the public domain because it hasn't been properly maintained, or because its term has expired. The patent system was created with the founding of the United States. Written into the United States Constitution, it has given inventors a period of time whereby their use of an invention is protected.

Eventually, all patents enter the public domain where anyone can use and build on them. Even if a patent is properly maintained, they expire after several years. Many patents enter the public domain far earlier however than their expiration date. This happens when the patent or trademark is either abandoned or not maintained properly, such as through the maintenance fee schedule required.

Many more patents than you might expect to enter the public domain before their expiration date. In fact, roughly 50 percent of patents do.

It used to be difficult to determine what patents had entered the public domain, as there were few public monitoring tools to continually track it. Each patent would have to be monitored through the USPTO's database. However recent databases have been created to monitor patents that fall into the public domain, such as Michigan Tech's public search system.

It is also possible to modify the search terms on the USPTO website to find patents that have expired by setting a minimum 20-year time since granting.

Here are some statistics on the percentage of patents abandoned per year due to lack of fee payment:

  • 2015: 21.79%
  • 2014: 20.52%
  • 2009: 17.52%
  • 2005: 15.38%

Patent policy remains controversial. Due to the roughly two decades most patents receive, many others aren't able to utilize the technology as rapidly. Particularly in fields that are developing extremely rapidly, such as software and Internet services, this can be a problem.

While patents were created with the intent to release the patent's technical details to the public with the application, nowadays inventions are becoming so complex that many of the applications do not sufficiently describe the invention enough for the public to utilize effectively.

Copyrights operate under a different set of rules. Copyrights may last a lot longer, such as 70 years. When looking at copyrights it is essential to carefully examine when it is going to expire and if it has been renewed.

NASA's Searchable Database of Public Domain Patents

NASA has long been at the forefront of technological development in multiple sectors, due to the complexity of aeronautics.

NASA has not only been involved in propulsion technologies but everything ranging from chemicals to nutrition, from protective materials to engines, due to the various demands of space travel on the vehicles and occupants.

As NASA continues to develop, it remains a source for many emerging and essential technologies that continue to push entire industries forward.

Many NASA technologies remain of great public interest and NASA does release certain patents to the public.

For example, in May 2016 they released over 56 patents into the public domain. Furthermore, they also opened an internet database that allowed the public to study their expired patents.

The release wasn't as beneficial to the industry as it may initially seem. The patents were specifically chosen as ones that were not likely to be too useful for businesses, as the patents were either in fields with weak markets or were not sufficiently developed.

Nonetheless, the released patents are useful for public interest and study and also may have unexpected contributions to technological and commercial research and development.

Even though many NASA technologies may seem only related to spaceflight, in fact, many different industries may find some uses for these NASA patents in unexpected ways. For example, propulsion technologies could find uses in strengthening truck engines, while NASA's medical research could benefit entire biological and chemical sectors.

NASA released these technologies with the intent to bolster overall societal technological development. Even though the patents released were identified as not extremely novel, nonetheless creative inventors, researchers, and companies likely will make some good use out of them.

If you need help with public domain patents, 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.