What are patents, exactly?

Patents protect inventions such as machines, chemical compounds, and items that are manufactured. Patents also protect the methods or processes for performing tasks or manufacturing products. However, there are three categories of subject matter that are not eligible for a patent: 1) physical phenomena; 2) laws of nature; and 3) abstract ideas. Inventions, including improvements upon pre-existing technologies, are eligible for patent protection if they are useful, new, and “non-obvious.” To qualify for a patent, all three of these requirements must be met.

For an invention to be considered useful it simply has to do something. To determine whether an invention is also new and non-obvious, it is necessary to examine the inventions which already exist, known in the patent world as the “prior art.” If the invention already exists in the prior art, then it is not new. If the invention is a variation upon something in the prior art, while it might be “new” in the sense that it has not been done before, it might be considered “obvious,” and therefore not patentable.

An example

If someone invents a machine that grinds peppercorns into powder, that invention would be useful, and if that grinding method is not already in the prior art, it will also be new and non-obvious. Afterwards, if another person designs a peppercorn grinding machine which works on the same basic principles as the first, but adds a set of smaller grinding gears to produce a more fine powder, the resulting machine would be useful and arguably even “new.” However, the addition of the gears on the second invention would likely be considered “obvious,” and consequently this machine would not be patentable. If this peppercorn grinding machine was invented in a way that ground peppercorns using a different method than the original machine, such as using an electric rather than a manual grinder, this process could be considered “non-obvious” and the machine may be patentable.

How do I obtain a patent?

In order to obtain a patent, the inventor must follow a formal procedure referred to as “patent prosecution” which involves the preparation of a detailed application that describes the invention, how to make and use it, and states which of its features are claimed to be innovative. After satisfactory review by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the patent will be issued. Patent protection generally lasts for 20 years. A patent prevents others from making, using, selling, or importing the invention, and any unauthorized engagement in any of these acts constitutes patent infringement. Patent infringement may be direct (that is, all elements of the patent or the equivalent to all elements of a patent are infringed) or indirect (one induces or contributes to another’s infringement of a patent). To defend against an action for patent infringement, a defendant may argue that the patent is invalid or that she did not infringe. Remedies for patent infringement include monetary damages that compensate for the infringement and injunctive relief (a court order for the infringer to stop using the trade secret).

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