What Happens to a Patent When it Expires?

By Beverly Bird

A patent allows you, and only you, to profit from your genius when you invent something new. No one else can manufacture or sell your invention unless you give permission. However, this protection does not last forever. Depending on what you’ve invented, your patent will expire in either 14 or 20 years. When this occurs, anyone can copy your idea and market it. When a patent expires, the protection it offers ceases to exist.

Duration of Patent

The United States Patent and Trademark Office offers three kinds of patents: Plant patents are exactly what they sound like; they protect hybrid or new vegetation. Plant patents are good for 20 years. A design patent covers new and creative ways of making an existing object. Design patents expire after 14 years. Almost everything else falls into the category of utility patents. Utility patents protect new, nonobvious and useful machines, manufactured articles, software and processes. Utility patents also last 20 years.

Exceptions

In most cases, patents are non-renewable. An exception exists for some pharmaceutical inventions. If pending FDA approval holds up marketing, Congress sometimes extends the expiration date of the product's patent. The extension is usually equal to the time of the delay. Your patent can also end sooner than 14 or 20 years if you neglect to pay patent maintenance fees during that time. Maintenance fees are due in the third, seventh and 11th years of your patent, and if you fail to make them, your patent will expire prematurely. However, the USPTO offers grace periods for these payments.

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Effect of Expiration

Consumers usually fare best when a patent expires and ceases to exist. This opens the door for others to create and market your invention. A flood of imitations may hit the market. The resulting glut generally drives down prices. You can continue creating and manufacturing your invention, but buyers probably will not pay you as much for it as they did when yours was one of a kind. The expiration of a patent creates pricing competition as your invention begins popping up on store shelves everywhere. No one can use the same name you gave your invention, however. Other manufacturers must come up with their own.

Other Methods of Protection

You don’t necessarily have to leave your invention to the mercy of its expiring patent and USPTO rules. If you keep some factor of your invention secret, no one else can make the exact same thing. You do have to explain the process of your creation to the USPTO to get a patent in the first place, but you can hold back certain fine details that you keep to yourself. These are “trade secrets;” the USPTO cites Coca Cola's as the most well-known. For example, there are many brands of cola, but Coca Cola can claim its own somewhat unique recipe and taste to try to prevent consumers from switching to other, less expensive brands.

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Principles of Patent Law
 

References

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