The intention of the patent system is to accelerate the progress of science by sharing knowledge that might otherwise be kept confidential (a.k.a. Trade Secret). The word “patent” comes from a Latin word meaning “open.” Compare it to “latent,” meaning “hidden.”
As an owner, a Patent will allow you to exclude others from manufacturing, using, or selling anything that incorporates the patented idea for a period of20 years from the filing of the patent application. Patents are granted to ideas that are new (a.k.a. novel), non-obvious and useful. The owners of a Patent have, essentially, a governmental monopoly on their idea in exchange for publically sharing their idea in great detail.
Patents are one form of Intellectual Property (I.P.) , literally property that someone conceptualized and, therefore, not tangible. Other common forms of I.P. include:
• Trade secrets – Information kept confidential so that it does not fall into the hands of competitors.
• Copyrights – Legal protection offered to written documents such as books, films, etc.
• Trademarks – Legal protection offered to a unique business logo, sign, or product that helps differentiate you from your competitors.
Trade Secrets are more common when innovation is occurring so quickly that it is cost-effective to keep your “secrets” in-house and confidential. Think of software and applications (apps). Likewise, Trade Secrets are useful for ideas that have long-term utility. For example, WD-40 and Coca-Cola were never patented because the publicized information would have destroyed their value when the patent expired. Bear in mind, while trade secrets don’t require the same effort to obtain that patents do, a person or company possessing a trade secret must still have the organizational support, which can be costly, to maintain the secret properly.
Defensive patents are those patents intended to protect the holder from litigation and not necessarily to generate revenue. Similarly, it may be appropriate to use Defensive Publications that are simply publications available to the public to keep others from patenting the idea. This method works on the idea that any publication of an invention prior to filing for the invention can prevent a later patent application from being granted. It is possible to file an application with the USPTO solely with the intention to prevent later inventors from patenting the concept. Any publication can work as prior art.
The USPTO grants the following types of patents:
• Design – These cover the aesthetic aspects of an invention. Example: the form and look of a new cell phone case.
• Utility – The “classic” example of a patent. This type of patent covers novel technologies, whether in pharmaceutical, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, or just about any area of innovation.
• Plant – Covers new types of plants. Example: yet another type of rose.
Note: Provisional Patents are NOT listed, see Misconceptions About Patents for more details.