A few weeks ago, I discussed the legal significance of patent markings on products sold in the United States. That article raised a more basic question among some readers: “What is a patent?” In this post, I discuss the reason the United States issues patents, how to determine whether your invention is patent eligible, and how to understand the different parts of a United States Patent.
The American Founders decided to grant patents in order to spur economic growth and to encourage inventors to reveal their discoveries to the public. Thus, Article I, section 8, clause 8 of the United States Constitution authorizes Congress to allow for patent rights, or limited time monopoly rights for inventions, stating that Congress has the power
To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.
The idea is that without such an incentive, inventors would be more likely to keep their inventions a secret, lest someone with better leverage to bring the product to market take the idea once it is made public.
While a lot goes into the question of patentability, the first key questions are whether your invention is (1) patent-eligible subject matter, (2) novel, and (3) non-obvious. Patent eligible subject-matter are things like machines, chemical compounds, articles of manufacture, and technical processes. Certain business method and software claims may not be patent-eligible (see this post for more about software patents.) An invention is novel when nothing like it has ever existed (things known at the time of the invention are called “prior art” in patent parlance.) A patent attorney can perform a patent search and opinion to evaluate this. Finally, obviousness is judged based on whether a “person of ordinary skill in the art” would have built the invention knowing the prior art then in existence. A patent search can also help evaluate this patent criterion.
Patents follow a standard form (for instance, here is one of my patent applications), comprising a specification, drawing, and claims. The specification explains the state of the art at the time of the patent application, describes the problems at the time, and then identifies the patented invention as a solution to the problems. The specification then describes how to build and use the invention, describing it in relation to one or more drawings with labeled, numbered parts. The patent then ends with the claims, or the the legal language used to enforce a patent against an infringer.
And that’s your crash course in understanding a patent.
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