The purpose of a patent is to give an inventor a limited-time monopoly over all benefits to be derived from the invention. To carry out that purpose, federal patent laws give patent holders certain exclusive rights during the term of the patent. This means that the patent holder retains total control over the production, use and distribution of the invention. These categories of patent protection apply to all three types of patents: utility patents, design patents and plant patents.
The key element of federal patent laws is the fact that the patent holder can prevent anybody else from using or benefiting from the invention. In other words, a patent does not give the patent holder a right to use the patented invention, because the inventor already has that right. What the patent gives is legal authority for the patent holder to stop anybody else from using the invention. Without patent laws granting these rights of exclusion, the invention would be susceptible to use by anybody, anywhere. Without patent protection, an inventor could spend lots of money and years of research inventing a product, only to face immediate competition from copycats that expended virtually no time or money creating an imitation. This would discourage inventors from putting resources into innovating new things.
A patent holder is the only person authorized to produce the patented idea. Sometimes the exclusive right of production is obvious, such as when the patented idea is a piece of technology produced in a manufacturing warehouse. Other times the exclusive right of production is more subtle, such as patented software code or a patented business procedure.
Nobody may use a patented idea without the written consent of the patent holder. This is a powerful category of patent protection because it can give the patent holder a significant edge over competitors. For instance, a business with a patented business process will be able to prevent other competitors from implementing the same business process. Similarly, a manufacturer holding a patent on new production equipment can prevent other manufacturers from using that technology.
The final category of patent protection is the right to exclude others from distributing the patented idea. This right may seem obvious and unnecessary in light of the rights to exclusive production and use, but the right to exclusive distribution is important because it protects all levels of the supply chain. For instance, a foreign company might manufacture a patented technology and sell the technology to an independent distributor located in the United States. Because the manufacturer is located outside the United States, the patent holder may not be able to enforce its exclusive right to production. However, because the patent holder also has the right to exclusive distribution, the patent holder can prevent the domestic distributor from selling the technology in the United States.