Patent Law 101

Patent Law 101

“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.” That phrase is from the U.S. Constitution and it is the foundation on which our current intellectual property law is based.

What is a patent? A patent gives you the exclusive right to use a process or a product which you invented.

What are some examples? Thomas Edison’s electric light, the Salk polio vaccine, the Pentium 4, and the cardboard coffee cup holder are all patented.

What is the philosophy behind patents? One theory is that inventors should be rewarded for their hard work and the time and energy they put into their inventions. Another theory is the utilitarian notion that granting patents leads to the greatest good for the greatest number. This theory can best be understood in economic terms.  If we grant patents businesses and individuals will invest time and capital in developing new processes and products, which in turn will promote economic growth and development.

There is however a countervailing theory that runs against patents. A patent is basically a monopoly, and a monopoly is able to charge higher prices than would be possible with competition. This desire to avoid permanent monopolies helps explain why patent grants are not permanent ?they expire after a certain number of years.

Why would someone want to study patents? Several reasons. First, in order to learn what kinds of inventions can be patented. Second, to learn about what technologies are generating patents. Third, because the inventions themselves are often very interesting.

By reading up on patent cases, you become familiar with the rules governing what is considered a patentable invention and what the procedures are for getting a patent. This teaches you how to spot something that could be patented.

Part of the procedure for getting a patent is to write up what it is you invented. You have to write your claim broad enough to protect your invention, but not too broad so as to claim more than what you actually invented. For example, when Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, he tried to claim every means of sending messages using electricity. If you think about it, that wording would include not only the telegraph, but email as well.

By knowing what technologies are generating patents, you also know what technologies are important in the marketplace. What are some examples? Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines, semiconductor manufacturing equipment, biotech patents involving genetically engineered plants or microorganisms, chemical compounds with medicinal properties, computerized financial services systems, to name a few.

Being familiar with what has been done in the past can give you ideas about what similar things could be done in the future.

Patent disputes often involve new technologies that are very interesting to learn about. The patent literature often includes a great deal of technical information about the technologies involved in a patent dispute. The information is collected, organized, and summarized in a more thorough manner than you would find in a newspaper, but is not so technical that you need a PhD to understand it.

So who here at our company is eligible to submit patent ideas? Electrical Engineers doing design work are good candidates. But software can also be patented if it is new and novel and merits a patent.

The value of patents as intellectual property varies greatly. Some can be worth millions. Some are barely worth the time and cost of filing them.

Others make you smile. While reading about patents, I learned that someone actually patented his golf swing. I will now demonstrate the golf swing for you. To me this seems a little silly. But it also raises some interesting possibilities. As an ice skating enthusiast it makes me wonder if you can patent a new jump in figure skating. If you can come up with the next axel or triple lutz, maybe you can.

While pursuing my interest in patents, I learned of a special summer camp for children called camp invention. This summer camp teaches children about basic science and about famous inventions and their inventors. Children who attended this camp give very favorable reports of it.

Having an interest in patents exposes you to the great inventions and inventors of the past. It recreates some of the excitement of discovery ?of finding a way to use a new technology to solve a real world problem in a way that has never been done before. It also can expose you to new technologies that you did not know about before, and spur you to learn more about them.

Edison said invention was one part inspiration and 99 % perspiration. Be encouraged by these words. Inventors are really problem solvers. As you tackle problems, remember what Edison said.

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