Three-Minute Legal Tips: The Importance of Patents

Patents have a positive effect on society because they promote innovation and help develop new products. They also protect intellectual property. When an inventor obtains a patent, they secure the right to exclude others from using, making and selling their product or method of use for 20 years, while maintaining the right to sell the item exclusively and for a higher price.

In three minutes, Toshiko Takenaka, W. Hunter Simpson Professor of Technology Law, answers questions about the reasons and requirements for obtaining a patent, who owns the patent if an inventor is employed by a larger entity and how patents benefit people.

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Toshiko Takenaka (TT): Hi, my name is Toshiko Takenaka. I'm a professor at the University of Washington School of Law.

Three-Minute Legal Tips (TMLT): What is a patent?

TT: A patent is a right to use an invention. If you made a product—your product—your right is to exclude others from using, making and selling the product. If you created a new method of using a product, then your right is to exclude others from using that product.

TMLT: Why would someone want to obtain a patent?

TT: Because, for example, setting a new phone with a great function you don't want someone to copy your product. You can sell the product exclusively, which means that you can sell the product with a higher price and exclude other competitors. By doing so, you can protect the business.

TMLT: What are the requirements for a patent?

TT: Invention must be new and inventive over conventional products and services already in the market on the date of filing, which means you have to keep your invention—your creation—in secret. Otherwise, you will not be able to obtain a patent. As long as U.S. patents are concerned, you have one year from the date of publication/communication with others to file a patent application.

TMLT: How long does a patent last?

TT: Twenty years from the filing date. That is universal not only in the United States but also everywhere in major markets.

TMLT: If someone develops a patent while working for a company who owns it?

TT: The original owner of invention is always the inventor, not the employer. However, when inventor starts working for her employer, usually she is asked to sign a contract to assign the ownership of IP rights, including patents, to employer. So, depending on the scope of assignment of contract, IP rights, patents transfer to employers automatically or sometimes with confirmation in writing, so that's all depending on the contract.

TMLT: How do patents benefit everyday people?

TT: The patent system promotes innovation. Patents give incentives to drug manufacturers, software companies, high-tech companies. Otherwise, no innovation, no new products or innovative thinking. Once patents expire, methods, products are free to use by anyone else. So, therefore, patent system push innovation and introducing new services and new products.