Thursday, July 15, 2010

Patents – The Basics and Some Common Questions Answered

For those of you who are unfamiliar with patents here is a primer describing the basics of patents and answering some of the common questions that novice or newbie inventors have about patents.

Let’s begin with what exactly a patent is. Although most people believe a patent provides you with “protection” for your idea. Actually a patent provides you with “offensive” rights. It does not shield you from infringing other patents which would be a “defensive” right.

US Patents are grants from the US government that confer upon inventors the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, importing, or offering an invention for sale for approximately 17 years, 20 years from the date of filing of the patent.

Who is eligible to receive a patent?

Anyone can apply for a patent. There are even provisions for dead and insane persons to apply for a patent through a personal representative. You do not have to be a US citizen.

Patents are considered personal property and can thus be sold or licensed for royalties by the inventor.

Three Types of Patents

There are three basic types of patents, utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. Utility patents are what most people think of when patents are brought up.

Utility Patents

Utility patents cover inventions that operate in a unique fashion to cause a useful result. Like light bulbs, electronic circuits, padlocks, Velcro fasteners, manufacturing processes, new bacteria, plants, and animals, and even methods of doing business.

Design Patents

Design patents cover a unique ornamental feature. The feature cannot be functional; if functional it would have to be covered by a utility patent, and won’t be eligible for a design patent. As you would expect, a design patent is relatively easy to get around, simply change the design in some way.

Plant Patents

Plant patents cover asexually reproducible plants, i.e. by grafting and using cuttings. Plants can also be patented by utility patents and sexually reproducible plants that use pollination can be patented under the Plant Variety Protection Act.

How Long Do Patents Last?

Utility and plant patents expire 20 years after the filing date. Design patents last 14 years from the date they are issued.

Although the term of a patent may be 20 years, it isn’t enforceable until the patent actually issues. Patents are guaranteed an in-force period of at least 17 years. If the USPTO (United States Patent and Trademark Office) is the party responsible for a delay, then they can extend the period to compensate for a number of reasons.

Patents usually issue within a year or two of being filed.

Filing Deadlines

In the United States you have one year to file your patent application after the date you first publish, commercialize, or reveal the details of your invention. If you fail to apply within the one year period you will generally lose your patent rights.

For most foreign countries the act of commercializing or publicly revealing your invention terminates your patent rights if you haven’t filed your application. Even publishing it in the US will destroy your foreign patent rights.

Filing a provisional patent application can provide you with an extra year to file a real patent application as the provisional patent application will give you the earlier publishing date for the US patent office and the foreign patents allow you one year to file after filing a US patent application.

What Cannot Be Patented

There are a few legal restrictions on what can and can’t be patented. For example, anything you can do purely with your mind can’t be patented.

Abstract ideas can’t be patented; the invention must be reducible to practice in hardware form or produce some useful tangible result. You can’t patents things that obviously don’t work like perpetual motion machines.

You also can’t patent human beings or atomic energy inventions.

Protection from Infringement

A patent will not protect your invention against infringing on someone else’s patent. You can only use it to stop someone else from infringing your patent.

How much does a patent cost?

If you use a patent attorney to obtain your patent, a good patent attorney will run you between $3,000 and $7,000 for a straight forward utility patent. Should you decide to patent it yourself the fees are only a few hundred dollars.

You can patent your invention yourself if you really want to. There are some very good books out there that can give you directions on how to do it. I recommend a book titled “Patent ItrYourself” by David Pressman.

The book goes into great detail about all things patent related. It even explores trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights, and more. The book even includes patent application forms and plenty of links to online support as well

You can look up the most current patent fees at the USPTO website.