A patent is the grant of a property right to an inventor for a set term, usually 20 years. When an inventor applies for a patent, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office determines whether the invention is useful., not substantially similar to a prior invention and not an obvious extension of a prior invention. If the invention satisfies these requirements, the PTO issues a patent certificate. A patent provides specific protections for an invention.
Federal patent law gives a patentee the right to prevent others from “making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States. In effect, a patent gives its patentee a limited monopoly on the invention. In exchange for a patent grant, an inventor must publicly disclose the invention in his patent application. After the patent expires, the invention enters the public domain. Anyone can make, use or sell an invention in the public domain without the permission of its former patentee.
Scope of the Protection
A patent grant includes key elements presented in the inventor’s patent application. One section of a patent application, the claim, provides a precise statement of the invention’s scope. The wording of the claim is the most important part of a patent application. It defines the boundaries of the patent grant. The claim informs people what they are not allowed to do without the patentee’s permission. In patent infringement cases, courts use a patent’s claims to determine whether infringement has occurred.
Patentees must enforce their own patents without the assistance of the federal government. A patent owner may file a civil lawsuit in federal court against a party he believes is infringing his patent. A party commits patent infringement by violating any or all of the protections afforded under federal patent law without the patentee's permission. The patentee may ask the court to issue an injunction to prevent the alleged infringement from continuing. He may also seek damages to compensate him for monetary losses due to the infringement. Federal laws do not provide criminal penalties for patent infringement.
A defendant in a patent infringement case has two basic defenses. He can establish the patent is invalid. A patent issued by the Patent and Trademark Office is presumed valid, so the burden is on a defendant to prove the plaintiff’s patent does not meet the legal requirements for a valid patent — useful, novel and not obvious — or the plaintiff’s patent application presented fraudulent information. The defendant can also establish that his product or process does not infringe the plaintiff’s patent because it falls outside of the scope of the patent’s claims. The court will compare the patent’s claims to a defendant’s product or process to determine whether infringement has occurred.