What is the purpose of a patent? This is a form of intellectual property (IP) protection that gives the creator of an invention the exclusive legal right to market, sell, manufacture, and profit from that invention. This monopoly lasts for a specific time period depending on the type of patent.

Purpose of Patents

Historically, patent protection was designed to encourage innovation and the disclosure of the details of new inventions. Because inventors may be hesitant to publicize their creation lest someone copy it, patent protection provides an incentive to share ideas with a temporary monopoly on their use. The full invention is disclosed in the publicly available application.

The period of patent protection allows the creator to recoup the cost of developing the invention by:

  • Enforcing the patent to exclude competition, thus monopolizing the market, and setting a high price
  • Licensing the invention to others in exchange for royalty payments
  • Suing for damages if a person or business infringes on the patent
  • Selling the invention to a third party

Patent protection is much stronger than other types of IP protection such as copyright. Copyright only protects the way an idea is expressed but does not prevent others from expressing the same idea in a different way.

Patents can also be a powerful negotiation tool. If a company wants to use a patent from another company but holds patents that company may use, they may be able to arrange a zero-sum deal or reduced licensing fee.

You may have heard the phrase publish or perish, which reflects the idea that scientific innovations by one scientist inspire and reflect innovations by other scientists. If discoveries were kept secret, industries would stagnate, so encouraging publication is beneficial for society and industry as a whole.

Types of Patents

Utility patents, the most common type, protect inventions. Design patents protect the decorative appearance of an item. Plant patents protect newly discovered and asexual plant varieties.

Utility patents provide 20 years of protection for an invention. Many inventions, such as complex machines, are made up of multiple patented inventions.

Filing a Patent

When you submit a patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, you obtain patent pending status. The application must be filed within a year of publishing a description or public disclosure of the invention. This does not include a signed confidentiality agreement, making it possible to market test the invention before incurring the expense of a patent application.

It usually takes 18 to 24 months to obtain a U.S. patent, at an average cost of $10,000 to $25,000. This can increase to hundreds of thousands of dollars if you opt to seek foreign patent protection.

Filing for Foreign Patents

While the United States uses a first to invent patent system, other countries use a first-to-file system. If you file for a U.S. patent, that filing date is valid if you later opt for patent protection in other countries, as long as subsequent foreign applications are filed within a year.

You can make patent filings in other countries through either the European Patent Convention or the Patent Cooperation Treaty.

Provisional Patents

This process allows you to file an invention description with the USPTO, thus protecting it for one year while you raise the funds to file a full patent application. The provisional patent is less formal than the full application and does not require claims.

Hiring a Patent Attorney

When applying for a patent, seek a patent attorney who specializes in your area of technology. He or she can write a claims section with expert knowledge of potential future developments in the industry. Seek advice from a patent professional before releasing any information about an invention you may want to protect.

The Value of Patents

Although patents were once rarely upheld in court, today many inventors have received multi-million-dollar infringement settlements. In willful infringement cases, the court may award the inventor triple damages. This can be avoided by receiving a noninfringement opinion in writing from a patent lawyer.

Patents also reflect the worth of companies in the technology industry. Venture capitalists are more likely to invest in companies that hold at least one patent.

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