Patents protect inventions. Patentable inventions include new and useful processes, machines, manufactures or compositions of matter, as well as any new and useful improvement thereof. Patents can cover everything from a better mousetrap to a “one-click” online ordering system. Patent protection is not available under either state or common law. Patents give you no right to make, use or sell your invention. Patents merely allow you to prevent others from doing so.
Even though you obtain a patent, your invention may still infringe an earlier patent. Although rare, this situation typically occurs when your invention is an improvement of an existing patented invention. A patent on an infringing invention may still have substantial value. Obtaining a license from the prior patent holder or licensing the patent to the former patent holder are ways to overcome this unique situation and profit from such a patent.
Under federal patent law, an inventor can obtain the right to prevent others from making, using or selling a particular invention. While patents formerly remained in force for 17 years from the date of their issuance, patents now expire 20 years from the date of their filing. Bear in mind that a patent does not allow its holder to do anything, only to prevent others from utilizing the invention.
Patent protection is not available for all types of inventions. Patent law does not protect any ideas, any obvious combinations of pre-existing devices, illegal or immoral matter, pure research, or anything that is simply a novelty or curiosity. Items such as perpetual motion machines are summarily rejected by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Examples of patents can be found on the Patent Officewebsite. Patents typically consist of a brief description of the background and pre-existing technology, a detailed description of the preferred embodiment of the invention, drawings and/or flowcharts associated with the invention, an abstract of the invention, and one or more claims. The claims are each a one-sentence description of the invention which, preferably, are broad enough to differentiate the invention over any pre-existing devices or obvious combination thereof. The claims, however, must be narrow enough so as not to include any extraneous matter, which would serve as a limitation to the enforceable scope of the patent.
For more information on patents, check out Internet Laws Affecting Your Company. Tomorrow, Patent Infringement.