Another important form of intellectual property protection is the patent. A patent creates protection for someone who invents a new product or process. The definition of invention is quite broad and covers many different fields. Here are some examples of items receiving patents:
- circuit designs in semiconductors;
- prescription drug formulas;
- coating processes; and
- business processes.
Once a patent is granted, it provides the inventor with protection from others infringing on his or her patent. A patent holder has the right to “exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention when the patent is granted.”
As with copyright, patent protection lasts for a limited period of time before the invention or process enters the public domain. In the US, a patent lasts twenty years. This is why generic drugs are available to replace brand-name drugs after twenty years.
Obtaining Patent Protection
Unlike copyright, a patent is not automatically granted when someone has an interesting idea and writes it down. In most countries, a patent application must be submitted to a government patent office. A patent will only be granted if the invention or process being submitted meets certain conditions:
- It must be original. The invention being submitted must not have been submitted before.
- It must be non-obvious. You cannot patent something that anyone could think of. For example, you could not put a pencil on a chair and try to get a patent for a pencil-holding chair.
- It must be useful. The invention being submitted must serve some purpose or have some use that would be desired.
The job of the patent office is to review patent applications to ensure that the item being submitted meets these requirements. This is not an easy job: in 2012, the US Patent Office received 576,763 patent applications and granted 276,788 patents. The current backlog for a patent approval is 18.1 months. Over the past fifty years, the number of patent applications has risen from just 100,000 a year to almost 600,000; digital technologies are driving much of this innovation.
Sidebar: What Is a Patent Troll?
The advent of digital technologies has led to a large increase in patent filings and therefore a large number of patents being granted. Once a patent is granted, it is up to the owner of the patent to enforce it; if someone is found to be using the invention without permission, the patent holder has the right to sue to force that person to stop and to collect damages.
The rise in patents has led to a new form of profiteering called patent trolling. A patent troll is a person or organization who gains the rights to a patent but does not actually make the invention that the patent protects. Instead, the patent troll searches for those who are illegally using the invention in some way and sues them. In many cases, the infringement being alleged is questionable at best. For example, companies have been sued for using Wi-Fi or for scanning documents, technologies that have been on the market for many years.
Recently, the US government has begun taking action against patent trolls. Several pieces of legislation are working their way through Congress that will, if enacted, limit the ability of patent trolls to threaten innovation. You can learn a lot more about patent trolls by listening to a detailed investigation conducted by the radio program This American Life, by clicking this link.