Patent Laws in a Nutshell

by Michele Vrouvas
Patent laws are based on a centuries-old concept that ideas are property.

Patent laws are based on a centuries-old concept that ideas are property.

Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Getty Images

Fundamentally, patent laws consider ideas to be property that entitles its owner to keep would-be trespassers at bay. Patent protection promotes a robust economy. It prevents copycats from cashing in on the time and money inventors pour into their discoveries by basically giving those inventors a limited monopoly. Without this protection, inventors might lose the incentive to discover, depriving society of technology that improves life.

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The roots of patent laws stretch back to the Middle Ages, when guilds hid their trade secrets from competitors. Gradually, governments came to treat ideas as tangible property with identifiable borders reserved for an owner’s exclusive use. Over the centuries, more inventions entered the marketplace and discoverers sought legal protection against copycats. Today, patent holders monopolize the manufacture and sale of their inventions and can sue whoever infringes that right. Without such protection, says legal writer Martin J. Adelman, “free-riders” would duplicate new technology and “the innovator would lose its vast investment in an instant.”

Federal Jurisdiction

Since the United States was founded, patent laws have been under the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government. The federal Constitution says that only Congress can establish a patent system. Federal patent statutes are found in Title 35 of the U.S. Code. Through the statutes, Congress established a federal agency, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), to oversee the patent application process. The USPTO is the only federal agency that can adopt rules and regulations to enforce the statutes. Federal courts also contribute to patent laws in the form of case law, a term for the collective opinions of judges who interpret patent statutes.

Types of Patents

Patents come in three types. Utility patents cover new devices or processes or improvements to existing ones. Design patents go to inventors who design a new look for a product. Plant patents protect those who discover new plants.


Inventors pass through a rigorous approval process that starts when they file applications with the USPTO. After an exhaustive review, the USPTO grants patents only for inventions that are useful, address appropriate subject matter, were not previously known in the United States, are not obvious to persons of ordinary skill, and are accompanied by specifications describing how the subject invention works. A patent allows its owner to prevent others from profiting from his invention for about 20 years, as long as he pays maintenance fees. Patents do not permit owners to make or sell an invention prohibited by law.


Patent violation, or infringement, can take several forms. Direct infringers make or sell patented discoveries without the owner’s permission. Indirect infringers induce third parties to violate patents, make materials for use with patented inventions, or make inventions similar to those protected by patents. Willful infringers take an obvious risk to make or sell patented material without confirming that a patent exists. Owners can sue infringers to regain lost profits and can stop further infringement through a court-issued injunction.