When we think about patents, most of us conjure up the ghost of Thomas Edison (who had nearly 1,100 of them) or perhaps Benjamin Franklin, who, despite being an avid inventor, held zero. In our minds, we create the image of inventors working by lamplight, sketching, figuring, building, and then selling their inventions.
In actuality, the truth of the patenting process is a bit different. A patent doesn't give the inventor a right to make something or use a new process they invented. What a patent does is give the inventor is the right to prevent others from making, using, selling, or distributing the patented invention without their permission. The U.S. Patent Act has been around since 1790 and typically provides 20 years of this protection to inventors.
Why patents are important
First, and probably most importantly, patents promote innovation. Even though patents are a legal concept, the patent process has its roots in public policy and the Constitution.
Consider the big picture—as a nation, the United States wants to promote innovation. We want brilliant citizens to spend their time and money coming up with concepts and ideas that they turn into inventions.
The benefit of this activity to society is immeasurable. Think about what our lives would be like if someone hadn't invented the light bulb (it's not who you think!), or if Watt hadn't improved rudimentary steam power into the modern steam engine. When inventors innovate, we all benefit.
Making invention appealing
Now think about it from the inventor's point of view. You come up with a great idea, but that's all it is: an idea.
It would be best if you now turned that idea into an invention. To do this, you typically have to invest your valuable time and money to see your idea become a reality. Why would you do that unless you could benefit from your work and see some return on your investment? While the mother of all inventions may be necessary, traditionally, the driver of invention is financial gain. So we have established that patent protection is good for society since it gives inventors the right to stop others from profiting off their hard work.
But why do we need the government to accomplish this for us? The short answer is that governmental protection in this instance is simply superior to other alternatives. It would be challenging to create a private system of agreements and contracts that would offer the protection an inventor can receive from a single patent.
A return on investment
Additionally, patents are property—intellectual property—which means that patent protection can be sold or licensed. This provides yet another avenue for an inventor to realize a return on his or her investment. When a patent is sold, the right to enforce that patent is typically transferred as well, giving the buyer the same rights they would have if they were the original inventor. This allows those with great inventing skills, but maybe less-than-great business skills, to still see a profit from their hard work.
An investment in time
But patent protection doesn't come cheap—and can take a lot of time. Obtaining a patent in the United States can take 36 months or longer, depending on a host of factors. Furthermore, while a very simple patent can cost around $5,000, complex patents can cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
However, even after investing all of the time, money, energy, and hard work, not every idea will find its way to becoming a patented invention. But for those that do, the patent system is a valuable tool that exists to ensure that inventors can adequately protect their creations. Without a doubt, patent protection is vital to the individual inventor's success and a benefit to society.
The Constitution's framers recognized this over two hundred years ago, and it remains just as true today.