What are Patents?
A patent, or invention, is any assemblage of technologies or ideas that you can put together that nobody put together that way before. That's how the patent office defines it. That's an invention. - Dean Kamen
A patent can be thought of as a way to protect your inventions. With an invention being a collection of ideas and processes that are used together to produce something valuable. In many cases, this may be a new physical product. In others, it may be just a process for achieving something differently.
The patents we will focus on for this book are the patents defined by the United States patent system. This right is granted to every citizen through Article One, section 8(8) of the U.S. Constitution. An excerpt of this article reads:
The Congress shall have 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;
This is a rare thing in this day and age for the U.S. government to promote science and arts. Or in other words, it was a way to protect the intellectual property rights of businesses. Now, I don't know about you, but sometimes I think that businesses have a little too much influence on politics. Just look at all of the different lobbying groups in Washington D.C.
Today, patent rights are treated much like other forms of property. Just like other forms of property, they may be bought, sold, traded, transferred, mortgaged, or just held onto as investments.
In legal terms, the purpose of a patent is not to protect an idea or invention, but rather to exclude others from using, selling, or offering for sale the idea or invention. The typical term or lifetime of a patent is 20 years. This is considerably shorter than the lifetime of a copyright (which is around 75 years if memory serves me correct).
It is also possible to piggyback on top of someone elses invention and file an improvement patent. This type of patent can only be used by the patent holder if the original patent owner agrees to license rights to their patent to the new-and-improved patent holder.
Many large companies hold a large patent portfolio that they are proud of. Many of them vehomently defend these patents in law courts around the world. The author has personally visted one of the main headquarters of Qualcomm, Inc and observed thousands of patents displayed on a wall of fame inside the main lobby. Companies such as this actively encourage their engineers to file and obtain patents (on behalf of the company of course).
Patents are not just a huge source of pride for companies but also for individuals as well. None of my friends ever boast about the patents they have. I suspect it is because very few (if any) actually have any. As I'm writing this book, I can tell you that I do not currently hold any patents. I suspect that will change before this book is finished.
The closest thing I have to patents is my domain name portfolio. An Internet domain name is guaranteed to be unique in the whole world. For roughly $15 per year, anyone can obtain and secure their domain name. I once had a portfolio of 120 different domains but I am narrowing that down to around 50. I have even managed a sell a few of those domains but nothing at a princely sum. As the Internet becomes more and more popular, I see the Internet as a big growth opportunity.
The first patent in the United States was granted by the Massachussetts General Court in 1641 to Samuel Winslow who created a new process for making salt.
The United States created a federal patent system in 1790 with the United States Constitution (Article One, Section 8(8)). It also adopted a patent act that same year and saw the first patent granted to a Samuel Hopkins living in Vermont who developed a new potash production technique.
What the heck is potash anyways? Sounds like something you'd find in an ashtray. I'll spare you the trouble of googling this - The term Potash comes from the pre-industrial era when potash was made by soaking plant ashes with water in a pot. The primary use for this was for fertilizer. Today, it consists of various mined and manufactured salts containing potassium (still mainly used as fertilizer).
The word patent comes from the latin word patere, which means "to lay open" or in other words: "to make visible to the public". In fact, the very first patent in recorded history comes from the Greek city of Sybaris (located in southern Italy) where the city provided for a patent lasting one year. The first modern-era patents were enacted in Venice, Italy in 1474 and then England in 1624.
Types of Patents
Previously, we have disussed patents in a general sense, but did you know that patents come in several different varieties? There are several classes of patents defined by the federal patent system.
Your standard patent is the type most people thing of when the word is mentioned. This includes any new, useful, but non-obvious process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter.
Industrial design patents or just design patents are used to cover creative designs and artistical works.
Plant breeders rights cover inventions involving cross-breeding different plant species.
These additional patent types are referred to as utility patents to distinguish them from the standard patent.
Difference between Copyrights
According to the U.S. Patent office, a copyright is defined as a protection given to authors of "original works of authorship". This includes literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished.
In once sense, you can think of copyrights as being creative works of fiction. Although, it could also apply to non-fiction as well. This work is largely the result of a creative effort that can easily be reproduced through copying a book, a song, a stage performance, a photograph, a painting, I think you get the idea here.
So a patent differs from a copyright because it has more practical uses in the physical world other than entertaining readers, viewers, and listeners. In most cases, it provides a valuable resource, material or service to humanity.
Difference between Trademarks or Servicemarks
Trademarks and servicemarks are unique names, symbols, or devices that are used to uniquely identify the source of a product or service. Trademarks are used for companies that produce products. Servicemarks are used for companies that provide a valuable service.
This protects a companies identity by preventing other companies from maliciously pretending to be another company. These items are commonly called "knock-offs" and are usually far inferior to the original products. Some countries are famous for producing such types of products (many are found in the far east).
Like patents, these protections only cover the United States but do apply to all goods being imported and exported from the U.S. So a patent generally covers technology or intellectual property and a trademark just protects a company's identity.