A United States patent is a form of intangible property that protects novel ideas (“inventions”) that have been examined and approved by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”). A patent gives the patent owner the legal right to stop others from making, using, or selling the patented invention for a limited period of time. Patent rights are national in scope, and patent protection for an invention exists only in countries in which a patent on the invention has been applied for and granted, and most developed and developing countries have patent systems. In the United States, a patent owner may bring a legal action in a federal court to preclude others from using the patent without the owner’s permission. Patents may be licensed for others to use, and patent licenses may be exclusive or non-exclusive.
Patents are granted for a period of time called the “patent term,” which is typically about 17 years for most inventions. Patents can also be granted for novel designs (having a patent term of 14 years) and for new cultivars of plants (having a patent term of 10 years). Once a patent term has expired, the patented invention falls into the public domain and may be freely practiced by others without the consent of the patent owner.
A patent is obtained by filing a patent application with the USPTO and paying the associated application fee. The application will be “examined” by a patent examiner to ensure that it meets the requirements for novelty and other legal conditions for patentability. During the examination, the patent examiner will communicate with the applicant, and may approve the application or may issue a rejection. If a rejection is issued, the applicant may make limited modifications and resubmit the application in an attempt to overcome the rejection. Once the patent examiner determines that the application meets the legal requirements for patentability, he or she will issue a “notice of allowability” and the application will be issued as a patent upon the payment of an issue fee.
There are numerous variations upon this basic explanation, and a registered patent attorney or patent agent should be consulted for a full explanation of the legal requirements for patentable inventions and the process for obtaining a patent.