What’s a Patent?

I always thought it would be awesome to be on a patent.  I am now on 5+ patents, and still think it is cool, but look at it in a totally new light than I did before.  As a guy who is on several patents, but by no means an expert, here is my take on many things patent. 

  • Why get a patent? – There are actually several reasons to get a patent.  The first and most obvious is to protect a product idea/design so other people can’t make the same thing.  However, there are other reasons as well.  Often when looking for funding or trying to sell a company, the most valuable asset is the intellectual property, mainly patents, that are owned by the company.  Other companies use patents as a sort of status symbol, “We are Company X and we have 57 patents”, they may never intend to defend any patents, but like the prestige.
  • What types of patents are there? – There are 2 basic patents, Utility and Design.  A Utility patent is used to protect how something functions and a design patent is used to protect how something looks.
  • How long does a patent last? – Patents last about 20 years, after that the intellectual property is available for all to use.
  • What kind of protection does a patent offer? – I think of a patent as less of a protection and more of a right to protect.  If someone steals your patented design, the only person who is going to peruse it is you.  This is in contrast to someone robbing a bank, where the law enforcement is the primary pursuer of the culprits.  Protecting a patent is often very time consuming and expensive.  Very few small companies have the financial capacity to do it, which can be very discouraging.
  • Provisional Patents – You’ve probably seen the words “Patent Pending” on a product or 2 that you have purchased in the past.  This simply means that a provisional patent, a kind of place holder for the patent, has been submitted, but a final patent has not been granted.  To submit a provisional patent is quite easy, and not especially expensive, around $500.  Once a provisional patent has been submitted, you have a year to get working on the actual patent, the provisional patent provides some protection for your idea/design.  It is always best to submit a provisional patent before sharing your design with too many people, as you don’t want someone to take off with your ideas.
  • What does a Patent Cost? – Depending on the complexity, a patent usually cost between $8,000 and $25,000.  This is why you usually want to get a provisional patent first, to give yourself time to see if the product is worth it before spending a much larger sum.
  • Who owns a patent? – There are 2 groups identified on a patent, the assignee, usually a company, and the inventors.  Being an inventor on a patent does not give you any rights/ownership to the intellectual property.  Most employment contracts for engineers require all intellectual property developed for the company to belong to the company.  The inventor will be required to sign over all rights to any patent they are a part of.
  • Do patents really work? – Yes and no.  While a patent can be effective when all parties are inside the US, if an organization that is outside of the US is trying to steal intellectual property, you would need a patent for that country.  In addition, you will also have to follow the rules of that country.  In short, it is very difficult to really keep intellectual property safe. 

I think the biggest issue with patents is the belief in the world that intellectual property isn’t worth anything, because it isn’t tangible.  Think about how many people you know who have illegal copies of music and software.  Since these things were not physically taken, it can seem that no crime was committed, however, these things cost money to develop and produce and are not free for the taking.  This can seem like a victimless crime, but really does hurt those whose intellectual property is taken.

What other questions do you have about patents and intellectual property?  Have you ever thought about applying for a patent yourself?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: