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The system of patents was established to encourage inventors by granting limited-term, limited monopoly on inventions determined to be sufficiently novel, non-obvious, and useful.
Patent, in law, the abbreviated term for letters patent, in its most general sense a document issued by a government conferring some special right or privilege. In the U.S. the term is now restricted principally to patents for inventions granted under federal statute. The specific attributes of novelty of the item for which a patent is sought are called claims. A patent gives the inventor the exclusive privilege of using a certain process or of making, using, and selling a specific product or device for a specified period of time.

In America, the first patents for inventions were issued in 1641 by the colonial governments. The first U.S. patent laws were enacted by Congress in 1790 under the authority of Article 1, Section 8, of the Constitution. The Patent Act of 1790 was administered by a commission composed of the secretary of state, the secretary of war, and the attorney general of the U.S. The basis of the present patent system is the act of July 4, 1836. Many legislative enactment's have modified the original patent law. The most important of these is the act of July 8, 1870, and the subsequent act of July 19, 1952, which revised and codified the patent laws and which, with amendments, constitute the patent law in force at the present time. In 1849 the Patent Office became a part of the Department of the Interior; it was transferred by executive order of the president to the Department of Commerce in 1925. On January 2, 1975, the name was changed to Patent and Trademark Office.

In the U.S. the law provides that a patent may be granted to any person for the invention or discovery of any new and useful art, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter or any new and useful improvement thereto; for the invention of asexual reproduction of any distinct and new variety of plant, other than a tuber-propagated plant; or for any new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture. In 1980, such patent coverage was also extended to the products of gentic engineering, including seeds, plants, and cultivars, as well as to new genetic engineering methods themselves. A patent is granted only on the filing of an application complete in all respects and on payment of the fees, and only after a determination has been made that the disclosure is complete and the invention new and useful.

The patent is issued in the name of the U.S. under the seal of the Patent and Trademark Office. It consists of a short title, together with a printed copy of the specifications and claims, a patent number, and a grant to the patentee and his or her heirs and assignees for a period of 17 years. In the case of design patents, the period of the patent is 14 years. Every patent must be applied for by the actual inventor, and if two or more parties make an invention jointly they must apply jointly. If the inventor dies or becomes insane before making application, a legal representative or guardian is permitted to do so. Patents may be transferred from one party to another; the written assignment is recorded in the Patent and Trademark Office.

Once a patent is granted, it is out of the jurisdiction of the Patent and Trademark Office, and matters of infringement, the scope of the patent, or any other questions that arise out of the grant are within the jurisdiction of the U.S. district courts. Infringement consists of wrongfully making, using, or selling a patented invention. The law requires that patented articles be marked with the patent number; failure to do so will prevent the recovery of damages for infringement, unless the patent owner can prove that due notice of such infringement was given to the person charged with infringing the patent, who continued after such notice to make or sell the patented product. The remedy for an infringement is an action for damages or for a restraining injunction, or both. It is customary for the manufacturer of an item for which a patent is sought to mark the product "patent pending" or "patent applied for"; such notice to the public affords an opportunity to others who may claim to have invented the same products to institute proceedings, called interference proceedings, in the Patent and Trademark Office to determine the originality of the claim of the applicant.

In general, a patent affords protection against infringement only within the jurisdiction of the government by which it is issued, and it is therefore necessary to take out a patent in every country in which protection is desired. Patent statutes have been enacted in most nations; the most important international treaty is the International Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property (1883; since revised).

Copies of U.S. patents may be purchased from the Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C.; photostatic copies of foreign patents may also be obtained on payment of the required fees, as nearly complete sets of the patents of many foreign countries are available in the Patent and Trademark Office library.

In fiscal year 2004, the Department of Commerce’s United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) granted 187,170 patents, including 169,296 utility (inventions), 16,533 design, and 998 plant patents as reported in its fiscal year 2004 Performance and Accountability Report released today. Since 1790, over seven million U.S. patents have been granted.

Did You Know?

  • Over 50% of all patents applied for are abandoned before they issue
  • Only 1% of all the patents issued become legitimate products
  • Ordinary people have invented the majority of new products and technology
  • Many inventors make a very lucrative career out of licensing ideas to manufacturers
  • Approximately 18,000 patents are issued by the patent office every week
  • 73% of all inventions that have changed the course of industry came from independent inventors not corporations

Source: Inventors Assistance League.

U. S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8
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