What is a Patent?
At its most basic, a patent is a right granted by the United States government to prevent someone else from making, using, selling, offering for sale, or importing a product in the United States that uses the patented invention or process. It is a right to exclude, and not a right for the inventor to make, use, sell, offer for sale, or import the product himself or herself. This is an important distinction that is often overlooked by inventors who may think that getting a patent entitles them to use their own invention.
The right to a patent is actually enshrined in the Constitution, and is found in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8, which states:
The Congress shall have Power 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….
In order to obtain a patent, an inventor must apply to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in Alexandria, Virginia. The USPTO is responsible for examining all patent applications and determining whether an invention qualifies for a patent. In general, an invention must be new, novel, and useful to potentially qualify. If the USPTO determines that the invention qualifies for a patent, it issues the patent and publishes it in a public registry of all patents. The USPTO has issued more than 9.3 million utility, design, and plant patents since the first utility patent was issued back in 1790.
If you look at a patent (it is a document), you will see that it has a number of major parts. The front page contains information about the patent, including its number, when it was filed and issued, who the inventor is, related patents, what other patents and prior art were looked at before issuing the patent, and what attorney or law firm helped draft the patent, among many other things. There is also a brief summary (the abstract) that describes the invention. The next pages contain drawings that help describe the invention. Later pages include background information about the invention, as well as a detailed description of it. Finally, the patent ends with a series of numbered claims. Each claim is a single sentence that describes the legal boundaries of the invention. The claims are the most important part of the patent.
Patents generally last for 20 years from the date of the earliest non-provisional application filed by the inventor. This duration can be longer or shorter depending on various circumstances, including how long the patent office takes to examine the patent application and whether the inventor has other, related applications.
Once a patent expires, the invention is in the public domain, and anyone can use it without permission from the inventor. This is the tradeoff that comes from being given a period of time in which the inventor can exclude others from using the invention.
Again, this description provides a broad overview of what a patent is, and there is a lot more detail behind each of these concepts. In our upcoming articles in our What Is…? series, we will explore some of the concepts discussed in this post in greater depth, explaining about the different kinds of patents (utility, design, and plant), the different types of applications (non-provisional, provisional, PCT, continuations, continuations in part, and divisionals), the different types of claims (independent and dependent) and what kinds of inventions can be patented, among many other things. We hope you’ll join us.