What Does Patent Mean?

By David Carnes

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.

Application Process

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.

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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.

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Difference Between Patent Approved & Patent Licensed?

A patent is a personal property right granted to an inventor under federal law through the U.S Patent and Trademark Office. To obtain a patent, the inventor must apply to the PTO for one. If the PTO approves the patent, the PTO issues a certificate of patent to the inventor. The holder of a patent may then license the patent to other users, granting them the right to use the patented idea or technology.

What to Do When Someone Steals Your Ideas

An unexpressed idea enjoys no legal protections. If you have fixed your idea in a tangible medium, such as by recording a song, writing a novel or creating a prototype invention, it may be entitled to the protection as intellectual property, and you may have legal recourse against someone who steals your idea. The ease with which you may enforce your rights depends on which branch of intellectual property law applies to your idea or creative work.

How Do I Patent My Idea?

A patent protects an inventor's right to produce the product he invented, preventing others from selling or using the product. Federal law provides patents as a way to encourage innovation by giving inventors ownership over their own ideas. Since patents can only be granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, you must apply through that office before you can receive your patent.

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