Why Do Patents Expire

If you find yourself asking, "why do patents expire?" it's important first to have an understanding of what patents are. Patents are given by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office and allow the inventor to have exclusive use of an invention, such as a device or process.

Patents are considered intellectual property rights. Patents are further classified into utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. In order to get a patent, there is an application process that consists of review by the USPTO office as well as certain filing fees.

Patents can be beneficial for those seeking to protect a specific invention that may have been R&D intensive. In the US, there are primarily utility and design patents. Here is how long each patent lasts:

  • Utility Patent: 20 years
  • Design Patent: 14 years

The term for utility patents starts when the patent application is filed. In contrast, for design patents, the term starts only when the patent is granted.

Utility patents are for specific processes, mechanisms, and uses of an invention, while design patents are for a patent's look, aesthetics, and appearance. It is possible to get both a design and utility patent for the same invention.

A patent essentially is a contract between the inventor and society at-large. By recognizing the inventor's right to exclusive use of the patent for a period of time, the inventor contributes knowledge of the patent and its design to public knowledge. This both recognizes the inventor's hard work while promoting technological innovation for everyone else.

Why Do Patents Expire?

Patents do eventually expire. While the patent will remain in force for a period of time, eventually they are considered no longer in effect, and the patented invention becomes freely usable by others.

Patent terms, if maintained right, vary but generally go for up to 20 years. After the patent expires, the invention can be used by others as much as they wish. For those seeking to use the patent after its expiration, knowing this expiration date is essential. There are historical reasons for the 20-year term, but nonetheless, it remains current policy.

Patent expiration is a policy balance between rewarding research and development as well as stimulating broad societal innovation.

A patent that remains in effect for too long can restrict others from using and building on it. All technology is built on past technology. To prevent long-term slowdown and unjust enrichment, patents eventually are no longer in effect.

Consumers and the public benefit from both patented inventions as well as the inventions that the patent helps spur. Patents are essentially a monopoly, which is seen as a necessary means of making research and development a worthwhile investment. A patent may also expire if the inventor or owner fails to pay their required fee on time.

Design patents do not need to pay maintenance fees. Utility patents will require a fee at the 3.5-year mark, the 7.5-year mark, and the 11.5-year mark from issuance. The fee also must be paid during the USPTO's specific window for paying the fee, which may change and is only generally a few months. There also is a grace period that may be granted.

The grace period allows the patent owner to pay the fee after the deadline, but if it is not paid during this time, the patent will expire. Under certain circumstances, such as extraordinary difficulty in paying the fee, the USPTO may allow the fee to be paid and patent retaken even after the grace period.

The patent must also be renewed annually in order to justify the continued government grant of monopoly rights. The fees increase as the time gets closer to 20 years, therefore decreasing the incentive to keep the patent if it's not economically useful. This patent expiration policy is carefully designed to attempt to balance innovation incentives by inventors with the larger public welfare.

The exclusive economic use of the patent rewards the inventor for pushing human knowledge forward. However, if all such inventions were restricted for a long time afterward, it would significantly slow down inventions by others and thus overall social well-being.

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