The whole idea of intellectual property protection can be confusing. Most people are familiar with copyright protection, but are not as clear on patents. Patents are a way of protecting inventions, innovations and sometimes engineering processes. Even animal and plant hybrids can be patented. While there are a number of things patents protect, there are some exclusions.
Patent is a form of intellectual property protection which grants to its owner the right to exclude others from using, manufacturing and selling the patent item. For example, per the language of the federal patent law, any person who “invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, may obtain a patent,” subject to the conditions and requirements of the law. Patents can be obtained for new and useful processes, machines, articles of manufacture, compositions of matter, designs (relating to articles of manufacture), some animals, some microbes and plants.
In the United States, a utility patent’s term is 20 years and a design patents term is 14 years. Registering a patent is more than an administrative process and in the United States, begins with filing an application with the Patent and Trademark Office.
For patents, the fees are substantially higher and the process is more detailed, because of the check and balance system in place. New patents are checked against existing patents. If there are items that are too similar, a new patent application could be denied.
Exclude v. Exclusions
A patent is a property rights which excludes others from using your creation. It differs from copyright in that it does not require a creator or inventor to build, sell, or manufacture their work. This ability to exclude is distinguishable from patent exclusions. Patent exclusions are those processes, innovations or inventions which cannot be given t protection under patent law.
Things That Cannot Be Patented
For patents, the concept of inventions is easy to understand. So, it’s not hard to figure out why a machine, a manufacturing process or even a special combinations of matter can be patented. But, there are gray areas. Some of the things that cannot be protected under existing patent law are:
1. Laws of nature and physical phenomena;
2. Atomic and nuclear energy based inventions intended solely as weapons;
3. Machines serving no useful purpose; and
4. Mere or abstract idea or suggestion.
When it comes to ideas, the general rule is that they do not receive intellectual property protection. As for physical phenomenon, plants, and minerals, anything that naturally occurs is not a man-made creation. Thus, not eligible for being patented. This category of exclusions is best demonstrated in talking about some lasers, which became part of the technological mainstream in the 1960s, but were discovered later to naturally occur in the atmosphere of planets. Also, while human beings cannot be patented, some human proteins or chemicals can if removed from a person and purified.
Patent law was designed to protect the creations of the mind like trademark and copyright law. As the world becomes more technologically advanced, patent laws will evolve and exclusions will depend on interpreting the existing or modified law.
For more information about patents, you can check out useful books, such as Elias and Stim’s Patent, Copyright and Trademark: An Intellectual Property Desk Reference, at your local library or bookstore. For additional information, check out the following websites: