A patent is a legal monopoly on the use and benefit of a unique invention. Patent rights are granted by national governments after a lengthy application and examination process. The patent holder may be the inventor or, as in the case of a work for hire, the inventor’s employer. In the U.S., patents are granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
To qualify for patent protection an invention must be novel, useful and non-obvious. It is novel if nobody has ever invented it before. It is not novel if someone invented it before you did, even if the prior inventor never received a patent for it. It is useful if it is suited to a practical purpose – a scientific theory, for example, cannot be patented. It is non-obvious if it incorporates a creative leap beyond current technology rather than an obvious next step.
Before you apply for a patent, check the website of the World Intellectual Property Organization to examine patent applications for prior inventions that may be similar or identical to yours. Your application will require detailed specifications and graphics that will allow the patent examiner to determine if you qualify for protection. The examiner will probably require you to make several amendments to your application over a period of a year or two. After 18 months, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will publish details about your invention in its gazette. Approval of a patent application normally takes two or three years.
The term of your patent begins running as soon as the Patent and Trademark Office accepts your application. Patent protection extends 20 years beyond this date, except for plant patents, which extend for 14 years. Between the date your application is received and the date it is approved, your application will be in “patent pending” status. Although you cannot sue an infringer while your application is pending, if it is eventually approved you may sue an infringer for acts that occurred while your patent was still pending. After your patent expires, it will enter the public domain, meaning that anyone can use your invention.
Assignment and Licensing
You may sell your patent outright for a lump sum payment (known as an assignment), or grant permission to someone else to manufacture, market and sell your invention in exchange for royalties (known as a license). If you grant an exclusive license, you may not grant a license to anyone else. Depending on the terms of the licensing agreement, you might not even be able to manufacture, market or sell the invention yourself. As long as you grant no exclusive license, however, you may grant an unlimited number of non-exclusive licenses.