Patent Law in the United States

Patent Law

Patent Law

A patent is a government authority granted to an individual or organization that gives them a specific right or title to make, use or sell something. It is a form of intellectual property that is granted by a sovereign state to an inventor for a specified time period that gives them exclusive rights. The patent might cover a product or a process that solves a particular technological problem.

There are various national laws and international agreements in place to handle the administration of patents and patent law can be one of the most sophisticated areas of law.

The patent itself is a set of claims that define an invention. To form a patent in the United States there are certain requirements, including that of “patentability” which indicates that the invention is novel and not obvious. So you can’t patent simple ideas that are used in everyday life, a patent can only cover an invention that is an interesting and unique solution to a problem.

Once patented, the invention’s owner is granted exclusive rights for that invention and the invention is recognized as their intellectual property. There are international trade agreements dealing with patents and the World Trade Organization (WHO) has created the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights which declares that patents should be available in every area of technology.

In the USA, the earliest patent was granted in 1790 under the Patent Act (1790) which was created by the first congress. Prior to 1790, a number of states adopted their own patent systems.

The US patent system is authorized in article one, section 8 of the United States constitution, which writes:

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;

It’s important to note that the patent does not grant the right to use an invention, it is the right to exclude others from selling it, making it or using it while the patent is still active. In most countries the minimum period for a patent is 20 years, and patents are often renewed subsequently.

The patent allows an inventor to share details of their invention with the public but still retain ownership and control of their invention. Once intellectual property rights are assigned, the inventor can sell, give away or transfer their patent to anyone they wish to. In a number of countries there are requirements that for a patent to be valid, the invention must be utilized. If the patent holder cannot demonstrate that the invention is in fact working and in use, the patent can be voided.

Patents come under the area of civil law and patent infringements in the United States are dealt with by the federal court. Some countries have criminal charges related to patent infringement, but most countries only allow the patent holder to sue for monetary compensation if their intellectual property rights are infringed upon. The patent holder can also ask for an injunction which would stop the infringing party from utilising the invention any further until the matter is settled.

Typically, the patent owner seeks monetary compensation for past infringement, and seeks an injunction that prohibits the defendant from engaging in future acts of infringement. To prove infringement, the patent owner must establish that the accused infringer practises all the requirements of at least one of the claims of the patent. (In many jurisdictions the scope of the patent may not be limited to what is literally stated in the claims, for example due to the doctrine of equivalents).

An accused infringer has the right to challenge the validity of the patent allegedly being infringed in a countersuit. A patent can be found invalid on grounds described in the relevant patent laws, which vary between countries. Often, the grounds are a subset of requirements for patentability in the relevant country. Although an infringer is generally free to rely on any available ground of invalidity (such as a prior publication, for example), some countries have sanctions to prevent the same validity questions being relitigated. An example is the UK Certificate of contested validity.

There can be patent licensing agreements where the patent owner sells the right to sell, make or use the invention. This often occurs when an inventor creates something new which is an extension on a previous invention. Sometimes multiple license agreements are involved when creating a single new product.

In the USA only the actual inventor of a product can apply for a patent, but it can be later assigned to a corporation. In many other countries, a corporation can be named as the inventor of the product initially and inventors can pass ownership of their invention to their employer (the corporation).

Because patents can be traded and sold, they often add value to businesses because they are considered valuable assets. When sold to third parties, the third party has all of the same rights that would be assigned to the inventor and can make a patent extremely profitable.

Patent law is one of the most interesting and complex areas of the law because it deals with sometimes complex agreements and technological discussions.