The act of patenting ideas has been around for centuries. The first United States Patent Act was adopted in 1790 under order of George Washington, but it wasn’t until the Patent Act of 1836 that inventors could check to see that their idea was original. Since then, people have been scrambling to protect their inventions with the U.S. seal of approval.
Trademark vs. Copyright vs. Patent
Before we delve deeper into the complex world of patents, let’s pause a moment to understand the difference between trademarks, copyrights, and patents. These emblems of ownership are all very similar but have distinct differences.
A trademark is word, name, symbol, or device which is used in trade with goods to indicate the source of the goods and to distinguish them from the goods of others. You may have heard that Beyonce and Jay-Z are trying to trademark their daughter’s name: Blue Ivy.
Copyrights protect original works of authorship, such as books, music scores, computer programs, photographs, and screenplays. The creator of copyrighted materials has the right to use and distribute their work as they see fit. Using a popular song for your YouTube video is a good example of copyright infringement.
Finally, and most importantly in this context, a patent is a property right granted by the government to the inventor. In the United States, a patent excludes “others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling their invention throughout the United States or importing their invention into the United States”; in most cases, this protection is valid for 20 years.
Types of Patents
- ·Utility: Someone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufactured product, or composition of matter can be granted a utility patent. These can also be given to individuals who create a new or improved version of one of those items. Creating a better air conditioner or seatbelt would warrant a utility patent. Utility patents are good for 20 years in the U.S.
- ·Plant: Someone who creates or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new plant variety can be granted a plant patent. For example, M. B. Crane was granted a patent for a thornless long-bearing blackberry plant. In the U.S., plant patents are good for 20 years.
- ·Design: Someone who invents a authentic, novel, and ornamental design for manufactured product can be granted a design patent.For example, Apple Inc. owns patents for the design of the iPhone. Design patents in the U.S. last 14 years.
Some lament that the arduous task of patenting gets in the way of the creative process. While the patenting procedure is filled with legalese, these long-standing laws are important for protecting inventors and their original creations.
So, once you have had your ‘a-ha moment’, how do you protect your million dollar idea? After ensuring the invention has not been patented already and deciding which category your invention or discovery falls into, you must file an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
There are two types of patent applications: provisional and non-provisional. Filing a provisional application is less expensive at $125, but the protection will only last a year. This is a good option if you want to test out your product and work out the kinks before paying more money for a non-provisional patent. A provisional patent application allows you to use the term “Patent Pending” on your product.
A non-provisional patent application is more detailed and expensive than the provisional application. For that reason, many people choose to file their application through an agent or attorney. Once you have hammered out all of your invention’s details, protecting it with a non-provisional application is a wise choice.
Patents: From Interesting to Absurd
How we watch television and movies has changed dramatically in recent years. We’ve gone from sitting through long commercial breaks to Tivo-ing our favorite shows to marathon sessions of entire television series seasons on Netflix. Now there is evidence pointing to Apple changing the way we do movie night. Recently, Apple applied for a patent for built-in projectors on their laptops.
There are some incredibly life-changing inventions out there, but we can’t all be Thomas Edison. For every robotic alarm clock and 3D printer, there are far more creative flops. Someone thought the tricycle lawnmower would serve double-duty: keep kids engaged while landscaping. And then there was a device meant to wake a dozing driver with an electric shock.
- ·The first U.S. Patent was granted Samuel Hopkins in 1790 for his discovery of a new method for producing potash: an ingredient for making fertilizer.
- ·IBM was granted 6,180 U.S. Patents in 2011, beating Apple by a whopping 5,504.
- ·The patent for the Statue of Liberty was granted to Augusta Barthodi in 1879.
- ·More than a million applications are currently pending, and over a thousand more are added to the pile each day, according to Wired Magazine.
- ·Abraham Lincoln is the only U.S. president with a registered patent: a tool that could lift boats over shoals.
Fueling the Fire
Abraham Lincoln once said, “The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.” Your ideas don’t have to be extraordinary to be patentable. After all, where would we be without ingenious inventions like lint rollers and dental floss?