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The inventor's best friend is the patent system
When inventors come up with a new device, the first thing they want to do is patent it. Patents are a government's way of giving an inventor ownership of his or her creation. For a certain period of time, patent-holders are allowed to control how their inventions are used, allowing them to reap the financial rewards of their work. Patents are a palpable, legally-binding manifestation of a person's genius and innovation; they allow a person to actually own an idea.
In most modern nations, there is an established system for protecting intellectual property, the product of a person or company's originality and creativity. The broadest protection of this sort is the copyright. Copyrights are intended to protect "original works of authorship" that are in a tangible form. This includes paintings, books, movies, choreographed dances (if the steps are written down), music, architecture and all other sorts of art. For a set length of time, these works cannot be copied or reproduced without the copyright-holder's permission. In the United States, the protection extends for the life of the copyright-holder plus 70 years (for works created after January 1, 1978). If a company owns the copyright, the protection lasts anywhere from 95 to 120 years depending on whether or not the work was published.
Other sorts of intellectual-property protection are much narrower in scope. Trademarks protect designs and phrases that businesses use to distinguish their product from other companies' products, and trade secrets protect proprietary information that must be kept secret in order for a business to profit (the recipe for Coca-cola, for example). Of all of the forms of intellectual-property protection, patents are the most complex and tightly regulated. Unlike copyrights, patents protect the idea or design of the invention, rather than the tangible form of the invention itself. Consequently, patenting something is a much trickier procedure than copyrighting something.
To patent an invention, you have to meet a number of requirements. First of all, the invention must be sufficiently novel. That is, it must be substantially unlike anything that is already patented, has already been on the market or has been written about in a publication. In fact, you can't even patent your own invention if it has been on the market or discussed in publications for more than a year.
The vast majority of inventions are actually improvements on existing technology, not wholly new items. The camcorder, for example, is essentially a combination of a video camera and a tape recorder, but it is a unique idea to combine them into one unit. It was so innovative, in fact, that when Jerome Lemelson first submitted the idea to the patent office in 1977, it was rejected as an absurd notion. When the invention was eventually patented, it launched a flood of portable video machines. If you search for the term "camcorder" in the U.S. Patent Office's database, you will find more than a thousand separate patents. A modern camcorder is a combination of hundreds of patented inventions.
Adaptations of earlier inventions can be patented as long as they are nonobvious, meaning that a person of standard skill in the area of study wouldn't automatically come up with the same idea upon examining the existing invention. For example, you can't patent the concept of making a toaster that can handle more pieces of bread at once, because that is only taking an existing invention and making it bigger. For an invention to be patented, it must be innovative to the point that it wouldn't be obvious to others.
Another condition for patenting something is that the invention is "useful." Generally speaking, this means that the invention serves some purpose and that it actually works. You couldn't patent a random configuration of gears, for example, if it didn't do anything in particular. You also wouldn't be able to patent a time machine if you couldn't construct a working model. Unproven ideas generally fall into the realm of science fiction, and so are protected only by copyright law. The "useful" clause may also be interpreted as a prohibition against inventions that can only be used for illegal and/or immoral practices.
All a patent really does is give the patent-holder the right to stop others from producing, selling or using his or her invention. For the life of the patent (20 years in the United States), patent-holders can profit from their inventions by going into business for themselves or licensing the use of their invention to other companies. It is up to the patent-holder to actually enforce the patent; the government does not go after patent or copyright infringers. To enlist the government's help in stopping infringement, the patent-holder must take any infringers to court.
In patent law, the term "invention" is defined loosely so that it can encompass a wide variety of objects. Obviously, if patents have to apply to things that don't exist yet, then the legal language must be fairly vague. In addition to standard technological machines and machine advancements, you can also patent certain computer programmes, industrial processes and unique designs (such as tyre or shoe-tread patterns). While none of the elements in these creations are new, the inventor may have combined them in a unique and innovative way. In the language of patent law, this constitutes an invention.
Some sorts of ideas are considered outside the realm of patents. No matter how innovative and beneficial they may be, certain notions are automatically public property the minute they are uncovered. The most prevalent examples of this are discoveries in the natural world. Scientists cannot patent laws of the universe, even though defining those laws may revolutionise a particular industry or change how we live. Einstein's Law of Relativity, for example, revolutionised the world of physics and will be forever linked with the man who devised it, but it has never been owned by anybody. This principle existed long before humans did, so, logically, it cannot be any person's intellectual property.
Scientists cannot patent a newly discovered plant or animal, either, though they may be able to patent a new plant or animal that was produced through genetic engineering. This is similar to the patenting of processes and computer programmes: A genetic engineer didn't create any of the parts, but the combination of these parts may be novel and nonobvious, and therefore patentable.
Patents motivate individual inventors, but they also motivate large companies. They are particularly important to chemical, computer-technology and pharmaceutical firms. In these markets, your success might be wholly dependent on having exclusive rights to innovative products. Intellectual property makes up a huge chunk of these companies' assets. Currently, IBM leads the pack in the invention race, boasting more than 2,000 patents in 1999 and again in 2000.
When something is invented as part of a person's work for a company, the company is typically given control over the invention, though the patent may officially go to the individual inventor. This arrangement varies depending on the country and the nature of the employee's contract. If you are contracted to grant your employer all patent rights to your work, selling your own invention would actually be infringing your own patent (and your employer could take you to court). The same holds for copyrighted "work-for-hire." You may be the original creator, but if you republish the work yourself, you are infringing the copyright.
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