Information on Patents

Information on Patents

Date: November 13, 2007

There are many misconceptions about what a patent is and is not. Many believe that patents can “protect an idea” in the sense of preventing people from acting on a concept you thought of. Others believe that mailing yourself notes and drawings is a “poor man’s patent” that provides sufficient protection. In fact, patents are only granted to inventions, and the only way to achieve patent status is to apply for one and have it approved by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

In the US, a patent is a set of exclusive rights granted to an inventor by the government or a set period of time. In exchange for these rights, and to assist in their being upheld, the inventor discloses the relevant details of his invention to the Patent and Trademark office.

The two main parts of a patent are the specifications and the claims. A specification is where you describe the inner workings of your invention in gross detail. For example, the creator of a new, lighter and more puncture-resistant bicycle tire might disclose that his tire employs a revolutionary new rubber alloy that is 50% more durable than anything currently on the market. He might further elaborate that the spokes of the tire are the result of a completely unique ergonomic design that the inventor and only the inventor knows, and that this design is what makes the tires lightweight. If the inventor receives his patent, this is what will be protected.

Claims are the part of the patent that explains precisely what this invention does, and is capable of doing. Claims are where you define the invention and what it is from a customer’s standpoint. So for example, you would state something like “Bicycle tire employing X proprietary rubber alloy for and Y spoke design to achieve maximum durability and lightness.” This illustrates, concretely, what your patented invention is.

To get a patent, inventors must also typically include a drawing or prototype of their invention. Many novices assume that patents protect mere ideas. That is, you can think of something, write down your idea in a patent application and own sole rights to it. In fact, this is not the case. To protect and foster innovation, the Patent and Trademark Office will only grant patents to those who create something based on an idea.

Contrary to popular belief, a patent is not a right to use the invention in question. Rather, what a patent does is give an inventor the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling the patented invention for however long the patent lasts. In the US, this is generally 20 years from the date of the patent being filed.

When and if it becomes necessary to enforce a patent, this can generally only be done through civil lawsuits. In most cases, the patent holder will seek monetary compensation for any past infringements. In addition to any damages, he will also seek an injunction. This is a court order prohibiting the infringer from infringing on the patent at any point in the future. It is the court’s way of saying, “We know what you did, and it needs to stop.”

To prove that a patent was infringed upon, the patent holder must prove that the infringer practices all of the requirements set forth in at least on of the patent’s claims. Recall that a patent’s claims are literally the patent. They set forth exactly what it is that this invention does. So if someone stole your spoke design and bribed your scientist into spilling your rubber alloy formula, you will most likely be successful in getting an injunction against that person. Your patent will be recognized and upheld by the courts.

It is also worth putting a naïve patent myth to rest. Many believe it is possible to bypass the lengthy patent application process and high fees by simply mailing yourself an envelope with lots of sketches and idea notes in it. By sending it via federally certified mail, this supposedly “proves” that you were the first to conceive of an idea at a certain time. While this might be useful under certain circumstances, it alone will not provide you with the protection a patent does. Courts will not recognize this as sufficient evidence that you have rights to an idea.

In short, the best advice for those seeking patent protection is to spend the money and consult a patent attorney. These are people who have spent years studying the ins and outs of patents and patent law. If you are thinking of staking your livelihood on a patent idea, these are the people whose advice you want to seek.