An illustration from Thomas Edison’s 1879 patent on an electric light, his first such device. Edison expanded on the ideas in this patent throughout his career, claiming hundreds of patents related to electric lighting.
Image courtesy United States Patent and Trademark Office
By Tom Harris
When inventors come up with a new device, the first thing they want to do is patent it. Patents are a government’s way of giving an inventor ownership of his or her creation. For a certain period of time, patent-holders are allowed to control how their inventions are used, allowing them to reap the financial rewards of their work. Patents are a palpable, legally-binding manifestation of a person’sgenius and innovation; they allow a person to actually own an idea.
In this article, we’ll look at patents to find out what they are, how they work and how an inventor goes about getting one. As we’ll see, patents are crucial to the progress of technology, and they play a major role in the business world.
Different intellectual property symbols
Patents and Intellectual Property
In most modern nations, there is an established system for protectingintellectual property, the product of a person or company’s originality and creativity. The broadest protection of this sort is thecopyright. Copyrights are intended to protect “original works of authorship” that are in a tangible form. This includes paintings, books, movies, choreographed dances (if the steps are written down), music, architecture and all other sorts of art. For a set length of time, these works cannot be copied or reproduced without the copyright-holder’s permission. In the United States, the protection extends for the life of the copyright-holder plus 70 years (for works created after January 1, 1978). If a company owns the copyright, the protection lasts anywhere from 95 to 120 years depending on whether or not the work was published [ref].
Copyrights do not protect the ideas put forth by a particular piece of art; they only protect the way in which those ideas are presented. In this article, for example, the information about copyrights and patents is not owned by anybody, but the sentences and paragraphs used to explain this information are copyrighted by this Web site. In the United States and many other countries, any original work of authorship is automatically copyrighted as soon as it is created. To learn more about copyrights, see What are copyrights and patents?.
Other sorts of intellectual-property protection are much narrower in scope. Trademarks protect designs and phrases that businesses use to distinguish their product from other companies’ products, and trade secretsprotect proprietary information that must be kept secret in order for a business to profit (the recipe for Coca-cola, for example).
Of all of the forms of intellectual-property protection, patents are the most complex and tightly regulated. Patents are basically copyrights for inventions, defined by U.S. patent law as “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.” Unlike copyrights, patents protect the idea or design of the invention, rather than the tangible form of the invention itself. Consequently, patenting something is a much trickier procedure than copyrighting something.
An illustration from U.S. patent # 5,375,430, a ‘gravity-powered shoe air-conditioner.’ Like many inventions, this device does not introduce any new concepts, but instead combines two existing concepts in an original way. The shoes, patented in 1994 by Israel Siegel, are powered by the walking motion of the user. Each time you take a step, your heel works to activate the air-conditioner compressor and expander.
Image courtesy United States Patent and Trademark Office
Patents are the most complicated type of intellectual property, as well as the most restrictive. To patent an invention, you have to meet a number of requirements. First of all, the invention must be sufficiently novel. That is, it must be substantially unlike anything that is already patented, has already been on the market or has been written about in a publication. In fact, you can’t even patent your own invention if it has been on the market or discussed in publications for more than a year.
The vast majority of inventions are actually improvements on existing technology, not wholly new items. The camcorder, for example, is essentially a combination of a video camera and a tape recorder, but it is a unique idea to combine them into one unit. It was so innovative, in fact, that when Jerome Lemelson first submitted the idea to the patent office in 1977, it was rejected as an absurd notion. When the invention was eventually patented, it launched a flood of portable video machines. If you search for the term “camcorder” in the U.S. Patent Office’s database, you will find more than a thousand separate patents. A modern camcorder is a combination of hundreds of patented inventions.
Adaptations of earlier inventions can be patented as long as they are nonobvious, meaning that a person of standard skill in the area of study wouldn’t automatically come up with the same idea upon examining the existing invention. For example, you can’t patent the concept of making a toaster that can handle more pieces of bread at once, because that is only taking an existing invention and making it bigger. For an invention to be patented, it must be innovative to the point that it wouldn’t be obvious to others.
Another condition for patenting something is that the invention is “useful.” Generally speaking, this means that the invention serves some purpose and that it actually works. You couldn’t patent a random configuration of gears, for example, if it didn’t do anything in particular. You also wouldn’t be able to patent a time machine if you couldn’t construct a working model. Unproven ideas generally fall into the realm of science fiction, and so are protected only by copyright law. The “useful” clause may also be interpreted as a prohibition against inventions that can only be used for illegal and/or immoral practices.
All a patent really does is give the patent-holder the right to stop others from producing, selling or using his or her invention. For the life of the patent (20 years in the United States), patent-holders can profit from their inventions by going into business for themselves or licensing the use of their invention to other companies. It is up to the patent-holder to actually enforce the patent; the government does not go after patent or copyright infringers. To enlist the government’s help in stopping infringement, the patent-holder must take any infringers to court.
Some inventors, such as the late Jerome Lemelson, have spent a significant part of their careers battling infringers. Many large companies have been accused of appropriating inventors’ ideas without compensating them for their work. Though Lemelson had patented crucial components in some of the most momentous technology of the 20th century, he spent much of his life struggling to get by. His critics charged that most of his ideas were based on projects companies were already pursuing. Eventually, Lemelson won out, amassing a substantial fortune late in life. He and his wife Dorothy used much of this money to assist other struggling inventors. In 1994, they established the Lemelson Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to promoting and rewarding American inventors.
While patent law does protect most forms of invention, it does not apply to all great ideas. In the next section, we’ll see what sort of things can be patented and which cannot.