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Sunday, March 29, 2020
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Technology & Innovation

The Importance of Patents for Protecting Intellectual Property

Armstrong Atlantic State University

11/23/2009 - Intellectual property laws were devised to protect products of human intellect that have some economic value.  The Founding Fathers recognized that it would be beneficial if creative people were encouraged to create intellectual and artistic endeavors and allotted for such protection when the U.S. Constitution was framed in 1787. The primary purpose of intellectual property (IP) as gleaned by the framers of the constitution is “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.” The forms of IP include copyrights, trademarks, patents and trade secrets.  However, the first step in obtaining protection is to understand which form is needed and how to go about it. The emphasis of this brief article is on patent protection; however, a cursory definition of each is in order.

Copyrights protect the creator of a work of art or literature, or a work that conveys information or ideas. Examples include originally written material, illustrative artwork, music and recordable media. Trademark laws protect the product or service name and any slogans used in branding and/or advertising. Under trademark laws, a manufacturer or merchant or group associated with a product or service can obtain IP protection for a word, phrase, logo or other symbol used to distinguish the product or service from others. A well known example would be the cursive writing insignia known worldwide for the Coca-Cola mark.

Trade secrets are often used by large corporations to protect information or know-how that is not generally known that provides its owner with a competitive advantage in the marketplace. These could include an idea, written words, a formula, a process procedure, a technical design, a list, a marketing plan or any other secret that gives the owner an economic advantage. One famous example would be the ingredients for competitive soft drink formulations such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi.

Patents protect the functional features of a machine, process, manufactured item, method of doing business, composition of matter, ornamental design or an asexually reproduced plant. Also, a patent protects new uses or improvements on such items. Once a patent is granted, an inventor is given a monopoly on the use and commercial exploitation of the invention over a limited time.

Unlike trade secrets, patents provide protection in the public domain with a published patent document, which can be accessed and searched via multiple databases (one example is Google Patents). Furthermore, regarding a basic difference between patents and copyrights, the patent protects the ideas expressed in an invention, be it a machine or process of some type; whereas a copyright only protects the words an author uses to express an idea, not the idea itself.

There are three types of patents: utility, design and plant patents. A utility patent protects functional aspects of an invention and, once issued, usually lasts for 20 years from its filing date. A design patent protects the decorative aspects of an invention for a term of 14 years. Design patents should be pursued if the essence of an invention is its appearance, or if the final version has a unique look. A plant patent protects the rights of an individual who is first to appreciate the distinctive qualities of a plant and reproduces it asexually (by means other than seeds). What cannot be patented are laws of nature, physical phenomena and abstract ideas. Also, inventions that are not useful or possible, such as perpetual motion machines, can't be patented.

The process of applying for a U.S. patent can be a costly, time-consuming and difficult procedure, usually taking years. First, a written description of the invention (along with any illustrations or images) created by the inventor is often called a "disclosure document."  It is confidentially disclosed to a patent law professional to begin the application process.  Next, a patentability search is the research conducted on the invention to determine if the invention already exists and/or is publicly disclosed in any form.  A patent search also reveals inventions related to the new invention, referred to in the patent documents as “prior art.”

Patent professionals are trained to help inventors analyze the elements of their inventions and correctly identify the novel, non-obvious components before applying for a patent.  The patent laws require the invention to be described clearly in a written specification along with any accompanying formal drawings. Both the analysis to identify the invention and crafting the words to describe it can be completed efficiently when the inventor and patent professional work together.  The patent professional may then file the completed patent application on behalf of the inventor. 
To learn more about protecting your intellectual property and filing for a patent, visit the Web site below, e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call 912-373-7464.

George Shields is the dean of the College of Science and Technology at Armstrong Atlantic State University.  He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Sonya C. Harris is a U.S. registered patent agent with over 17 years of experience including working as a patent examiner for the U.S. Patent Office. For more information, visit www. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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