Patent law is a complicated area of law governed by a confusing set of statutes and regulations that are interpreted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) and the federal courts. Patents themselves are sometimes almost unintelligible and, if intelligible, may require many hours of reading to understand. It is no wonder that there are a lot of misconceptions or myths about patents.
This is the first of two columns in which I will discuss a few of the most common aspects of patent law that are misunderstood.
Clients often want to patent an idea. Ideas are not patentable – inventions are patentable.
To be patentable, an invention must fall within one of four categories, referred to as statutory subject matter. Those categories are: processes (also referred to as methods), machines, articles of manufacture, and compositions of matter.
Process patents include patents for methods of doing just about anything, including some computer software and some methods of doing business (although business method patents are now under increasing scrutiny both in the PTO and in the courts). Machine or apparatus patents include traditional types of machines as well as computer systems. Articles of manufacture are devices such as tools or just about any non-machine. Compositions of matter include chemical compositions, genes, and genetically engineered (non-natural) living organisms, including bacteria, plants, and animals.
The above four categories are the categories of inventions for which a utility patent can be obtained. There are two additional types of patents: design patents and plant patents.
Design patents protect ornamental designs for articles of manufacture, such as chairs, dishes, and glassware. A design patent protects only the appearance of the article, not any aspect of its functionality. An article may be the subject of both a design patent and a utility patent, however, if it has both ornamental design and function.
Plant patents protect distinct, new varieties of asexually reproducible plants (i.e., plants that can be reproduced without seeds, such as by budding or grafting). They include such plants as certain types of roses, nuts, flowering plants, and fruit trees.
There are several things that are specifically not patentable. They are: abstract ideas and mental processes, laws of nature, natural phenomena, and mathematical algorithms.
Even if a client’s idea fits within one of the four categories of statutory subject matter, it still is not patentable if it is in its infancy. The idea must be an invention. The inventor need not have actually made the invention (reduced it to practice), but must have a complete and operative understanding of the invention. The patent application must contain a detailed written description of the invention and must describe how to make and use the invention without undue experimentation. Thus, an idea that is not fully fleshed out, even if it is patentable subject matter, is not ready to patent. The inventor must be able to describe what the invention actually is.
In addition to a detailed description of how to make and use the invention, a patent application must also include the “best mode” of carrying out the invention. The best mode is the best way of using the invention known to the inventor at the time the application is filed.
This requirement prevents the inventor from keeping the best way of using the invention a secret. A patent is a trade-off: in exchange for the Government giving the inventor the rights to exclude others from making, using, selling, or offering to sell the invention, the inventor must fully disclose the invention to the public in the patent. This is so that the public may practice the invention after the patent expires.
If an invention is easy to reverse-engineer, trade secret protection is essentially useless and patent protection is the better choice. This is because patents, unlike a trade secret, protect against reverse engineering. On the other hand, if an invention is difficult to reverse-engineer, trade secret protection may be preferable to obtaining a patent because, unlike a patent, a trade secret does not expire.
A utility patent contains several parts: a specification or disclosure, a drawing if necessary, and at least one claim. The specification is a detailed description of the invention that tells a person of ordinary skill in the art how to make and use the invention and describes the best mode of carrying out the invention. The drawings (which may include flow charts) must illustrate all essential elements of the invention. Drawings are typically necessary for inventions that fall within the subject matter categories of machines, articles of manufacture, and processes; drawings are usually not necessary for compositions of matter.
The specification and drawings describe the different versions (embodiments) of the invention or examples of the invention. They do not define what the patent owner may enforce with the patent. This is determined by the claims.
The claims must contain the patentable elements of the invention. It is the claims that are used to determine whether there is infringement. The claims must be read in light of the specification and the drawings, but the claims define what the patent protects. Sometimes, the claims are broader than what is described in the specification and the drawings, so one must read and interpret the claims to know what the patent protects.
A provisional patent application cannot become a patent. Despite its name, a provisional patent application is not really a patent application at all because it cannot mature into a patent. Rather, a provisional patent application acts as a placeholder for a utility application – it is a mechanism for allowing an inventor to obtain an earlier filing date for a utility application.
A provisional patent application requires a specification and a drawing if necessary, and should contain at least one claim. It must satisfy the same requirements as a utility application (written description, enablement, and best mode). A provisional application is not ever examined by the PTO and no patent ever issues directly from it. An inventor has one year from the filing date of the provisional application in which to file a non-provisional utility patent application for the same invention, claiming the benefit of the filing date of the provisional application. Because a provisional application requires the same level of detail as a utility application, it is typically not much quicker or less costly than a utility application.
If a client has limited time or funds, however, filing a provisional application may be better than filing no patent application. For example, a provisional application may be advantageous if the inventor needs to disclose the invention on short notice and does not have enough time to have a utility application prepared. In that situation, the provisional application may provide the inventor with an earlier filing date than might otherwise be obtained, as long as what is later claimed in the utility application was disclosed in the provisional application.