One-hundred and seventy years ago today, the USPTO issued US Patent 6469 to Abraham Lincoln. He was the only president to ever have a US patent, the 6,469th issued by the USPTO.
Linoln's patent, which he wrote himself, covers a method of bouying boats through shallow water, using internal inflation devices. The invention was never built-I guess he was busy with other pursuits.
The first patent was issued in 1790, and signed by George Washington. Do a little math, and you will find that patents were issuing at a rate of just under one a month for the first sixty years. That rate is significantly less than today. In 2013, the USPTO issued 302,948 patents, over 25,000 a month.
Besides the bit of trivia regarding Lincoln, I think it is interesting to note how long the US patent system has been operating. The basis of which is in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. "The Congress shall have Power To... promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries..."
Check out Lincoln's patent. I hope you enjoyed the history lesson.
In philosophy and legal theory, rights can be broken down into positive rights and negative rights. But since philosophers and jurists are involved, the distinction is muddled and the debate takes on more importance than the actual definition. In my mind, the distinction is clear. Positive rights oblige others to act, and negative rights oblige others not to act.
When an inventor is granted a patent, he is given a negative right. He now has the power to prevent others from doing certain things, specifically making, using, or selling his invention. If another decides to make and sell the protected invention, the inventor has the option of suing for infringement and getting an injunction to prevent the infringer from acting. Whether to exercise that right is up to the inventor.
An inventor with a patent does not have the right to make his own invention, only the right to prevent others from doing so. Yes, you read that right.
“Blocking patents” are a common occurrence, and demonstrate when an inventor is prevented from making his own invention. This is a situation where one invention (Invention B) is an improvement over an earlier invention (Invention A), and a separate inventor owns each invention. Invention B cannot be made without also making Invention A, thus Inventor A has a negative right preventing Inventor B from making his own Invention B.
But it works both ways. Inventor B also has a negative right preventing Inventor A from making Invention B. If Invention B’s improvement is so great that it makes Invention A irrelevant, the patents are blocking each other from making the optimal product. In an ideal world, the two inventors reach an agreement to cross-license the blocking patents, allowing each to make Invention B.
The example above highlights the importance of performing a prior art search before pursuing a patent. But it is also demonstrates how patent rights actually work. Patents don’t guarantee the right to produce an invention, but they do give the inventor the right to prevent others from doing so.
Media coverage regarding patents usually involves the sale of portfolios or the winning of infringement suits for several million or even billions of dollars. Yes, some patents are worth millions, but most of them are worth very little, and will never be used.
If one wants a patent, because they think it will make them rich, then they are sorely mistaken. A patent is just a piece of paper. Its value comes form the right it grants the owner, and how the inventor exercises those rights.
The purpose of a patent is to give an inventor the right to prevent others from making and selling the invention. The patent itself does not generate any income. A patent is basically useful in two situations. The first is when an inventor has developed a product and another copies it. The patent gives the inventor the right to sue the infringer, getting them to stop, getting damages, or both.
The second situation is when an inventor convinces another that the patent has market value, and the inventor assigns or licenses the right to make the invention to another.
Both of these scenarios require the inventor to achieve a certain level of market success. It is unlikely that another will infringe an invention if the invention is not proving successful, and it is also unlikely that another will pay a licensing fee or purchase the patent without a certain amount of proven marketability.
Inventors should ask themselves why they want a patent. It takes a long time, around three years, to get one issued. And even that is only a fifty-fifty proposition.
Success is determined not by owning a patent, but by developing, manufacturing, and marketing a product that is valuable to consumers. A great idea is worth very little without the abilities to make it a reality.
The patent is secondary. In the first situation, described above, the patent is something that the inventor usually hopes they never have to actually use. I like to think of them as insurance policies. They are an up front cost to deal with a potential situation in the future.