As any inventor knows, bringing a new idea to fruition can be a time-consuming, expensive pursuit.
Because of the high cost of inventing a product, filing a patent, and bringing a product into an already competitive market, inventors often team up with collaborators in the invention and patent process.
Numerous inventors may contribute to the research and development of a single invention. When it's time to file a patent application, however, determining who contributed what to an invention may be difficult, particularly when the invention was developed from a collaborative effort.
An invention's patent is considered personal property. Under patent law, each co-inventor named on a patent application owns that property. In the absence of any agreement, each co-inventor owns 100 percent of the patent, regardless of how much each individual contributed to the invention. Patent law gives co-owners of a patent the right to make, use, license, sell and import the patented invention within the United States in whatever way they please, without the consent of the other co-owners.
Joint ownership of a patent occurs simply by applying for a patent with other people. Co-inventors don't need to work together or at the same time on an invention. Nor is it necessary that they each make the same type or amount of contribution. Each co-inventor must simply contribute, in some manner, to the development of the idea of the invention.
A written agreement is the best protection
The best protection against having one owner take advantage of a patent is by clearly defining, in writing, the agreement between the creators of one invention. A written agreement should outline each inventor's rights to the invention and, subsequently, to the patent. This agreement would preferably be entered into before any research or development is done. However, co-inventors are often unaware of the stipulations needed in a written agreement until it's too late and a co-owned patent is already filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Because joint ownership can occur by simply adding an inventor's name to a patent application, inventors should consider whether or not they want to be joint owners before drafting a written agreement. If the inventors want to avoid joint ownership, a written agreement can allocate sole ownership to one of the inventors for both the invention and the patent.
If joint ownership is agreed upon by all parties, the written agreement should assign a specific amount of interest to the inventor or inventors of the joint invention. If the inventors simply do not discuss the subject of joint ownership, they may find themselves as joint owners under patent law by default.
Is joint ownership for me?
Inventors should be aware of the rights and obligations of owning a patent to an invention with another person to reduce any surprises that may arise from joint ownership. The most effective way to avoid potential joint ownership problems is to deal with them contractually before the invention process is completed.
The above suggestions are for patents filed in the United States—jointly owned patents are somewhat different in many foreign countries. To secure patent protection outside the United States, inventors must file foreign counterpart applications. This could be an expensive process if not researched carefully. After investing time, talent, and energy into developing a winning invention, it's important to make sure that it's protected—and that the ownership of the patent is clearly defined.