This post is part of a series of posts entitled A Legal Guide to the Internet. For a comprehensive list of articles contained in this series, click here.
A patent is a government grant to an inventor of the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering to sell, or importing an invention for a limited period of time. The government awards such monopolistic rights in exchange for the public disclosure of the invention through the patent document. Inventors are thereby rewarded for their efforts, and society benefits through the increased amount of technological knowledge made available to the public.
In order to fulfill their part of the bargain under United States patent law, inventors must disclose the best known manner for making and using the invention. The description of the invention must be sufficiently detailed to enable a person skilled in the particular technological field to make and use the invention without undue experimentation. If the invention proves to be sufficiently novel and non-obvious over existing technology, the government will in return grant the inventor a patent.
There are two types of patents that affect the Internet: utility patents and design patents. The enforceable term of a patent depends on which type of patent is obtained. A“utility patent” is available for a process, machine, manufactured article, composition, or any new and useful improvement. This type of patent covers the concept or idea behind the process, machine, composition, etc. Generally, a utility patent is enforceable for 20 years after the date on which the corresponding patent application is filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). A“design patent” is available for anyone who develops an original ornamental design for a useful article of manufacture. Design patents cover the specific appearance, such as the article’s shape, rather than the concept or function of the article itself. A design patent is afforded a 14-year term from its date of issuance.