Patents: What Do They Protect?

A patent provides legally enforceable protection for an invention. It is similar to a copyright or a trademark in that it gives the creator the right to prevent the theft or distribution of their idea for a limited period of time, usually twenty years.

What can be protected by patent?

In order to qualify for patent protection, an invention must satisfy four tests.

First, it must be functional or technical insofar as it relates to how something works or how it is made. As such, a piece of music will not qualify for a patent, whereas an iPod will.

Second, it must be new; technology that already exists cannot be patented. It is therefore prudent to carry out a thorough patent search before you begin to develop your idea.

Third, there must be an inventive step. A patent cannot be registered if the idea is obvious to someone with knowledge of the relevant industry. Small modifications to an existing idea are not patentable.

Finally, the concept must have a commercial/industrial use. There is no point in protecting an idea if it cannot be used in practice. In other words, it must involve something that can be made or itself be a means of making something.

The worth of a patent

Without a patent, an invention can be essentially devoid of commercial worth; anybody can copy and modify the idea. Obtaining a patent can be a very valuable undertaking, setting the patent holder up for a steady stream of income in the form of licence fees or product sales.

Take for instance, the self-sealing-valve technology you often find in squeezable ketchup bottles. The trampoline-like valve construction allows liquids to be stored upside down without leaking. It was created by Paul Brown in 1991 and has been licensed to many organisations including NASA and Heinz.

The popular GoPro line serves as a recent example: the mini action camera concept started its life mounted on the wrists of surfers and was patented by Nicholas Woodman in 2004. Ten years and millions of sales later, GoPro went public with a valuation of nearly $3 billion.

What range of technologies do patents protect?

Despite certain restrictions, the range of technologies that can be awarded patent protection is virtually unlimited. Patents are held in relation to a vast array of everyday items such as ovens and breadmakers, allergy medicine and laser surgery techniques, water guns and toy trains.

Some of the most exciting patentable ideas are being generated in robotics, even if fully functioning robots are years from coming to market. Likewise, patent-protected self-driving cars are making meaningful inroads, so to speak, towards wide adoption by the public, and a necessary restructuring of transportation laws and insurance markets is following suit.

Big data is ripe for patents too: twenty-two thousand applications were published in the period 2004–2013. As more information moves online, expect such patents to be coming thick and fast for a while yet.

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