Protecting Your InventionBack to Educational Resources
Understanding What Patents are Supposed to Protect
Patents are a type of legal protection intended to ensure that inventors are fairly compensated for developing ideas. The patent system is based on the goal of rewarding the true inventor. The U.S. Constitution specifically authorizes Congress "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times t... Inventors the exclusive Right to the... Discoveries."
While there are a lot of commercial companies that market "patent services," patents are ultimately legal documents subject to legal interpretation, which can be very important over a patent's life, particularly if there are ever issues of infringement to be resolved.
Patent attorneys have to pass a special examination and be registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and have a technical or engineering background. The USPTO also allows individuals, called Patent Agents, who are not attorneys to take the patent exam. Patent Agents can file documents with the USPTO, but they can't give legal advice.
The USPTO maintains a searchable list of Registered Patent Attorneys and Agents at:
The Founding Fathers apparently recognized the societal importance of innovators like Benjamin Franklin (who invented bifocals, lightening rods other and hot colonial consumer items). Patents are intended encourage technological progress by giving a true inventor a head start in the marketplace to stave off competitors for a set amount of time so they can recoup the costs of creating.
How Patents Empower Individual Inventors
Patents give inventors power. Whether you're a multi-national conglomerate or an individual inventor working out of your garage, a patent gives you a "mini-monopoly" to exclude others, for the entire term of the patent, from making the invention claimed. You can prevent others from making, selling or using your invention (or its functional equivalent) for a twenty-year period from the date the patent application is first filed. If you have a U.S. patent, you can invoke your patent from sea to shining sea.
If the entire U.S. market isn't big enough, you can also file for foreign patent protection to mini-monopolize the market in other countries. Each country in the world exercises control over patent protections recognized within their borders.
Patents protect all functional equivalents of your product that accomplish the same result as your invention in the same way. This is a powerful principle of patent law known as the doctrine of equivalents. The doctrine of equivalents is one reason patent protection is so valuable.
The better your patent application is written, the more it covers. A well written patent can protect many different marketable variations of an invention over the twenty-year patent term. Different versions of the same invention are called embodiments. For example, a patent on a feature of a CD player that allows you to instantly change song tracks may cover many different uses of the technology. One embodiment of the invention may be a car stereo system, another embodiment may attach to a stroller, and another may be adapted for joggers. However, assuming the patented aspects remain the same, the patent will bar competing products which make aesthetic or obvious modifications that don't change the patented function of the product, in this case rapid song track shifting.
Avoid telling anyone about your invention without having them sign a Non-disclosure Agreement. Appendix A contains a Sample Non-disclosure Agreement ("NDA").
In the U.S., you have one year from the date you make a disclosure to file a patent on your invention. Most foreign countries don't have a one year grace period thus any disclosure of your invention to someone who has not signed an NDA can permanently bar you from filing a patent in these countries.
The Real Price You Pay for a Patent
Aside from the legal fees you pay your attorney, patent protection has another price. You must actually disclose important information about your product to your competitors. In exchange for receiving a patent, the law states that an inventor must disclose how to make and use their invention in sufficient to detail to allow someone of ordinary skill in the art to replicate it. You must also allow this information to be published on the USPTO website. As an inventor seeking a patent, you must fully disclose the best mode of making your invention, and make sure that the instructions you include in your patent are sufficient to explain it to someone of ordinary skill in the art.
Under most circumstances, patent applications are required to be filed within 18 months of the date they are published. Once your patent application is published, your competitors and any other member of the public can access it freely on the USPTO Website at http://www.uspto.gov and learn from the information you have disclosed. They are free to attempt to design around your patent and improve upon your invention, thus paving the way for further advances and improvements that benefit society.
Since a patent is offered to inventors in exchange for information about their invention, it's important that inventors don't disclose their inventions prematurely. Congress presumed that if an inventor publicly discloses their invention, one year is plenty of time to seek a patent. U.S. law specifies that one year after the date of the public disclosure, the incentive to give a patent in exchange for the information no longer exists since people presumably already know about it.
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