October 18, 202
By R. Benjamin Peeler, IV
Patents can provide enormous protection for your inventive ideas. The value of patents has been long recognized in the United States. Patent protection is addressed in the U.S. Constitution and the first patent act, the Patent Act of 1790, was passed a year before the Bill of Rights. But what exactly is a patent, and how can one help you? While there are really three types of patents, a utility patent, a design patent, and a plant patent, this article will focus on the most common type: The utility patent.
A patent is essentially a government-enforced monopoly over the ability to make, use, and sell an invention. If you have a patent, nobody but you and someone to whom you give permission, can make, use, or sell your invention. This allows the inventor to reap the full rewards of his/her hard work without worry that someone else will come along and freeload on your good idea. In exchange, after the patent expires, the whole world gets to know how to make your invention. Patents expire 20 years after the inventor files an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Typically, if the USPTO approves and issues the patent, it will have an effective life of about 17 years.
The USPTO will approve and issue you a patent if four things are true: Your idea is useful, novel, not obvious, and of patentable subject matter. The first requirement is relatively straightforward; your invention has to actually do something useful. That something doesn’t have to be particularly impressive or important, but you must be able to point to a problem and say, “my invention helps with this.” Keep in mind, your invention does not have to work perfectly, or even particularly well. But it must work to be useful.
Secondly, your invention must be novel, or new. You cannot get a patent on something someone else has already invented, whether patented or not. To prove novelty, you need to show that nobody is already using or talking about your invention. This makes sense, as you wouldn’t want somebody to get a patent on your invention just because they filed a patent application before you.
Thirdly, your invention cannot be obvious. This requirement can be a little confusing, but in essence it means that the average person who works in the field your patent relates to (known as a “Person Having Ordinary Skill in the Art”) could not have come up with your invention by just combining existing ideas. For example, in a world with circular pulling doorknobs and square turning doorknobs, you could not get a patent on a circular turning doorknob.
Finally, your invention must be of patentable subject matter. What this means is that your invention must be a machine, a manufacture, a composition of matter, or a process. So, is a patent right for your invention? The process of obtaining a patent can be long and complicated, but an attorney licensed with the USPTO can help you protect your inventive idea.
Ben Peeler is an associate attorney with Flint, Connolly, & Walker LLP who specializes in patent law, intellectual property, and commercial transaction matters.