A patent is more than just a piece of paper. It’s a legal guarantee of certain rights as an inventor that govern how you’re able to use and defend your invention.

As such, understanding your patent rights is critical to protecting your patent successfully.

Here’s a closer look at some key exceptions and limitations to patent rights for inventors.

What is a Patent?

Before we talk about what a patent isn’t, it helps to understand what a patent is.

A patent is an exclusive right granted to an inventor to make, sell, and import their invention. Generally speaking, this must be a new and novel solution to a problem or an improvement on a preexisting solution requiring an innovative leap.

There are three types of patent:

  1. Utility patent
  2. Design patent
  3. Plant patent

A utility patent is a patent issued for a new and useful machine, process, manufacture, or composition of matter, or an improvement thereof. It protects the function of the invention. A design patent protects how something looks, such as the original curvy Coca-Cola bottle. A plant patent protects new and distinct species of plants.

What Rights Does a Patent Grant?

Your rights vary somewhat based on the patent type, but generally, the patent owner has the right to prevent others from commercially exploiting the patented invention. This means the patented invention cannot be manufactured, used, distributed, sold, or imported by others without the patent owner’s explicit consent.

This right doesn’t last forever–it comes with a time limit based on the patent type. A utility patent, for example, is granted for 20 years from the earliest priority date, which is generally the filing date of the patent application.

Limits and Exceptions to Patent Rights

As previously noted, patent rights are not unlimited. There are a few key limitations and exceptions worth noting.

Limited terms

Once a patent has been granted, the patent is only in effect for a limited term.  In the US,

  • Utility and plant patent:  20 years from the earliest filing date
  • Design patent:  15 years from the date of grant of the patent

The calculation of the actual expiration date of any patent depends on a number of factors, including:

  • Whether or not the patent claims priority to an earlier patent application
  • Whether the appropriate maintenance fees have been paid
  • Whether a terminal disclaimer has been filed in the patent application
  • Whether there were delays by the patent office during the examination of the patent application

Additionally, certain types of technologies (particularly in pharmaceuticals) have been granted specific extensions in the patent term by legislation.  Otherwise, you’re pretty much limited to the statutory effective terms of 20 years for utility and plant patents, and 15 years for design patents.

Protection in Other Countries

A patent in the United States does not give you patent rights in other countries. Similarly, a patent granted in other countries does not give you patent protection in the United States. You have to apply for patent protection in each country, with each country’s respective patent rights applying to the relevant patent.

However, there are some exceptions and limitations on patent rights in developing countries in order to foster innovation. The best way to figure this out is by looking at each developing country individually–this table is a great place to start.

Legal Challenges

Remember that the scope of an issued patent depends on the granted claims in the patent.  Even once a patent has been granted, there are unfortunately a variety of ways the patent claims can be challenged, both at the patent office and in the courts.  So, even once you have an issued patent in hand, you can’t be completely assured of the validity and effectiveness of your patent.

For instance, a competitor may challenge the scope of your patent claims at the USPTO or in court.  In some cases, the issued claims may survive the challenge unscathed, the claim scope may be narrowed, or the entire patent may be deemed invalid.  Also, if challenged in court, the claims may become limited to very specific definitions of the terms used in the claims.  

So Why Use the Patent System?

While there are various limitations to keep in mind, as discussed above, patents can provide you and your company with a way to mitigate business risk, prevent issues with potential competitors, and protect your competitive advantage.  An experienced intellectual property professional can help navigate the complexities to formulate a patent strategy that is right for your particular situation.

We get it. Patents are hard. But they’re also your best chance to turn your dream invention into a profitable business. That’s why it helps to have the right team in your corner.

That’s where we come in, with expert patent services to guide inventors like you through the entire innovation process. You can focus on making your business happen, and we take care of the necessary evils. Sound good? Then get in touch to learn how we can help.