A patent is an inventor's ownership of a novel technology, usually a product or a process.
Under US Patent Law, an inventor files for a patent with the US Patent Office. A patent examiner reviews the application and issues a patent when he is convinced the new technology is novel and useful. If conflicting claims are made, the patent goes to the first to invent rather than to the first to file. Hence, the one who can prove he had the idea on the earliest date gets the patent.
Traditionally the term of a US patent was 17 years from the date of issue, but more recently the US has changed to 20 years to conform to international patent conventions. At the expiration of a patent, the technology passes into the public domain. The patent cannot be extended except by the development of new patentable technology.
Congress has granted one exception to the rule that a patent expires on a specified date 17 or 20 years from date of issue. When commercialization is delayed by an extended regulatory approval process such as a new drug to be approved by the FDA, the life of its patent can be extended.
In Europe and Japan, patent applications are published before the patent is issued, and the patent is granted to the first to file. Publication of patent applications allows competitors to challenge a new technology as being known or obvious. The US system grants patents to inventors based on the principle of first to invent. This system relies on experienced patent examiners and patent searches to determine if a filed patent is a novel idea. The higher level of expertise of others in the technology results in greater difficulty getting patents issued in Europe and Japan. The US system lends itself to nuisance patents, that some hold are obvious, but other claim merit payment of royalties on nearly every related product. Revisions to US patent law to reduce the problem of nuisance patents is pending.
A patent is another form of intellectual property. Many more patents are issued than are actually practiced, but many are obtained to protect valuable technology from incursions by competitors. Many patents obtained by inventors in corporate labs are assigned to the employer, who then pays the cost of the patent filing and increasingly maintenance fees to keep a patent in force.
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