Lawyers and Settlements

Intellectual Property: Patents

Other Features of Patents

A patent is far more than simply a legal document. It is also a technical publication and sometimes almost a sales brochure. It is a technical document that contains a written description of the patented invention so that everyone interested in the field to which the patent pertains may learn how to make and use the invention by reading the patent. Issued patents provide a wealth of technical information for the public, often unavailable elsewhere. A patent is analogous to a sales brochure because it describes what was known before, commonly referred to as the "prior art," and then sets forth how the present invention is an improvement over the known state of the art.

The original patent document (a fancy copy with the gold seal and blue ribbon and the patent grant on the front) goes to the patent attorney, if any, and the patent attorney will usually give that document to the patent owner. Both formal copies (with ribbon and seal and grant page) and informal printed copies (without ribbon, sea or grant page) of the patent are available from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which is a part of the Commerce Department which is part of the Executive Branch of the US Government. The mailing address of the office is Commissioner of Patents, Washington, D.C., 20231, but the current physical location of the office is 2001 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington, Virginia, in the Crystal City office complex just a few minutes from Washington's National Airport. New patents are issued each Tuesday in a book called the Official Gazette. Printed copies of the Official Gazette and copies of all patents are available from the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Libraries in several major cities throughout the country have complete collections of U.S. patents.

Internet access to patents: The full text of all patents issued since 1976, and images of all US patents ever issued (since the first patent in 1790) are available over the Internet at the official United States Patent and Trademark Office website search page, in a massive database of nearly 4 terabytes, one of the world's largest online databases and certainly one of the most important, which serves as an amazing and incredibly useful historical record of the technological progress of the most technically advanced country in the world, with an enabling disclosure of each step along the way.

The Value of Patents

One need only consider: cotton gin, farm tractor, plow, harvestor, combine and herbicides to farmers the light bulb, computer, telephone, television, microwave, and vacuum cleaner to everyday life the steamboat, car, train, airplane, jet, rocket and highway to travel the X-ray machine, heart pacemaker, aspirin, birth control pill and NMR to medicine a host of other inventions, all of which were patented, to realize that an essential cornerstone of the American success story is the framework for innovation provided by the patent system. The inventor is rewarded with the grant of the power to exclude and thus is encouraged to come forth with new developments while the public benefits because, through patents, knowledge of inventions is made available to everyone. Thomas Edison obtained 1093 patents and these patents formed the exclusive position upon which the General Electric Company was based. Donald Weder of Highland, Illinois has over 1100 patents related to the floral supply industry, and nearly every floral product made in the world is made under license from his foundation. Jerome Lemelson was an independent inventor who came up with a concept of putting markings on packages and reading them to control machines in a process he called “machine vision”, and his foundation has received over a billion dollars in royalty from this invention that is more commonly known as “bar coding.”

But the patent is only worth what the invention is worth. It is the invention described and claimed in a patent and the market for the products or processes based on that invention that determine the value of the patent and not vice versa. The reward to the patent owner is usually determined by the commercial importance of the patented invention. An inventor gets rich from a patent only if the invention will sell for a profit.

The benefits to the public from the patent system can be enormous. Besides stimulating inventions, patents provide the exclusivity necessary to attract capital and effort to develop inventions into commercial products and services. Patents for pioneer inventions often provide the foundation for entire new industries, such as the television industry. Even patents covering minor improvements of a product or process may have significant value if the improvement results in a product or process either strongly preferred over competing products or one that is less expensive to make or use.

Information on this page was supplied with permission of Bruce E. Burdick.

Patents | How to Evaluate an Invention