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What Is Patent Law?

Definition of Patent Law

Patent law is the branch of intellectual property law that deals with new inventions. Traditional patents protect tangible scientific inventions, such as circuit boards, car engines, heating coils, or zippers. However, over time patents have been used to protect a broader variety of inventions, such as coding algorithms, business practices, or genetically modified organisms.

In general, a patent can be granted if an invention is:

● not a natural object or process;
● new;
● useful; and
● not obvious.

Exactly what is eligible for patent protection is a topic of fierce debate, and courts often struggle to determine what is a new, nonobvious invention.

Once granted, a patent gives the inventors the exclusive right to sell their invention for 20 years. Sometimes inventors give other companies a license to manufacture and sell the invention in exchange for a fee.

Terms to Know

Application: The collection of documents that must be filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in order to obtain a patent.
Agent: Someone who is not an attorney, but who is authorized to file patent applications on behalf of inventors.
Claims: The section of the patent application that defines the new and nonobvious part of the invention and the part of the invention that can later be protected.
Counterpart: A patent application before the USPTO concerning an invention that is already patented in another country. Typically, the same person files both patent applications.
Infringement: Making or selling a patented device without a license from the patent owner.
Prior Art: The state of the industry before the patent was filed. Things that are considered prior art are not eligible for patent protection because they are not new.
Patent Prosecution: The process of applying for and receiving a patent.
Patent Litigation: The process of defending a patent against infringement.

For more terms, see Findlaw’s patent glossary.

Practice Area Notes

Patent attorneys practice in all types of settings. Some work for the USPTO reviewing patent applications. Others work in boutique law firms that only prosecute patents and litigate over patents. Many patent attorneys work as in-house attorneys for companies or practice patent law as a part of small business law, since patents are central to many businesses.

Related Practice Areas

Small Business and Corporate Law: Many businesses are formed because someone has a new invention that they would like to put on the market. These inventors need patent protection before they can sell their idea.
International Law: Markets are now global, and inventions need to be protected across national borders. Each country has its own set of laws regarding patents - some recognize U.S. patents, and some do not.
Intellectual Property: Patents are a part of intellectual property law, along with copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets.
Science and Technology Law: Patents help make new inventions marketable, which drives technology forward.
Communications Law: Many of the latest patentable inventions involve communications devices.

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