A patent is an exclusive right that is granted by law to an inventor to protect their invention from being reproduced and sold by another person or business. When an inventor has a patented product, they are the only ones who can decide how to use the product. They may grant permission for third parties to use it through licensing or choose to manufacture the invention themselves.
In exchange for disclosing the details of an invention to the public and government, inventors can be issued a patent and control how their invention is made, used, or sold. But the process of applying and receiving a patent is not without its obstacles, including cost, regional restrictions, and more. So if you’re an inventor with the next big product, should you get it patented or think twice before applying?
Types of Patents
There are three types of patents for inventors, a utility patent, a design patent, and a plant patent. We’ll only cover utility and design patents, as a plant patent is granted for the invention of a reproducible plant, and is the rarest of the three types of patents.
Utility Patent, also known as “patent for invention”:
- Protects an item’s way of operating (or how it works)
- Lasts up to 20 years from the time of the patent
- Falls into one or more of the five categories: a process, a machine, a manufacture, an improvement of an existing idea, or a composition of matter
- Most commonly issued patent by the U.S Patent and Trademark Office
- Must serve a practical purpose or use
- Requires maintenance fees
A utility patent can protect the process of creating something, such as a computer algorithm, the machine used to make something (e.g. silk screen machine), the item being manufactured (such as a camera), a recipe for a creation (e.g. soap), or an improvement to any invention.
- Protects an item’s visual aesthetic, or look. Something that is purely decorative.
- Must be an original design to ornament a manufactured product. Cannot be functional.
- Lasts up to 14 years from the time of the patent. Non-renewable.
- Not issued for surface ornamentation (two-dimensional design, such as an illustration)
- May not be issued if the design has been published or sold before applying for the patent.
A design patent is for the design of useful objects, not the object themselves. Several companies, such as Nike, Apple, and Timex, have patented their distinctive designs to set themselves apart from competitors, when in reality, the functionality of the products are not all that different between brands.
Pros and Cons of Patents
Now that you know the two main types of patents, let’s discuss the advantages and disadvantages to getting a patent—utility or design.
- Once patented, an invention is considered the inventor’s intellectual property. It is exclusive to that person, and they control how to use it.
- A patented invention cannot be manufactured, reproduced, or sold without the inventor’s permission. It is off-limits to the competition.
- A patent can promote further discovery by an inventor, and increase in value over time.
- Patent rights can be sold or licensed for royalties to a third party at the creator’s discretion, allowing a company to expand into other regions or markets. The creator can also charge more for the product because they have control of the market.
- A patent can prove to be a valuable asset when your small business is looking for investors, a business partner, or when negotiating with a potential purchaser. It may even increase your company’s value and bargaining power.
- You can justify investing more funds into a product’s design or production because no one can copy it without infringing on your patent.
- In addition to prior research, the process of applying for and receiving a patent can be complex and take years, during which you go through several stages of review and approval.
- You only have exclusive patent rights in the region where you filed your patent (you have no protection in countries where you have not patented your invention). Therefore, you must file an application in every area you want exclusive rights.
- The inventor must disclose all the details of their invention, including how it works, an illustration if needed, and other background information, in their patent application. Anyone can view this information, including competitors.
- Getting a patent can be expensive. Pre-patent costs may include hiring a patent attorney and applying for a patent in your chosen geographical locations, while post-patent costs may include maintenance fees (required or you may lose your patent rights), reissue fees, and more. The majority of patented inventions generate less revenue than they cost to patent.
- If someone infringes on your patent, you must be willing to defend it. Not only can this be costly, but it can be time-consuming to monitor, track down, and bring any wrong-doers to justice for infringement.
- Getting a patent provides exclusive rights to a very particular design or product functionality. A wealthy competitor may easily replicate the product with enough differences to be legal. Thus, you can be left behind if you don’t have comparable resources.
- In some countries, the inventor must put the invention to commercial use within a limited time frame.
- Once the patent is expired (14-20 years), anyone can use the invention, or you can apply to have the patent reissued (utility patents only).
Is Getting a Patent Worth it?
As you can see, patents are useful tools for inventors who wish to control how their invention is made and used, and to prevent anyone else from profiting off of their idea. However, there are also drawbacks to getting a patent, namely time, cost, and enforcement that might not be plausible for those with limited resources.
As an inventor, safeguarding your product or design is important for a few reasons. It gives you earned creative and material recognition for your invention, and full control over its fate. Protecting an invention also allows for continuous technological and economic advancements, which is beneficial for everyone.
Without legal ownership over your intellectual property, you will not be able to sell or license your invention to a third party because you do not have exclusive rights to it. Your invention could also be “knocked off” by competitors if you do not have a patent, or worse, patented before you.
In any case, how you elect to protect your invention will depend on your personal situation, with the most obvious factors being cost and time. Weigh the pros and cons of filing a patent, ask an expert patent attorney or agent about what is in your best interest, and consider other cost-effective ways to protect your product or design, such as a provisional patent application or copyright, before deciding how to take your invention public.
Have you ever applied for a patent?