One thing that many people hear about the patent process is that it tends to be incredibly lengthy. While this is true, this process is necessary for intellectual property protection, especially in an age where infringement is easy. In recent years, intellectual property theft has been steadily increasing: the United States International Trade Commission reported a rise in infringement and theft of 80.6% between 2009 and 2010 and another 23.2% by 2011. Insider theft is especially common, especially in the IT, finance, and chemical industries, and is most often perpetrated by former employees or business partners.
However, taking advantage of the legal ways to protect intellectual property is one of the best things that any inventor could do — and should do as soon as possible. The patent application process can take up to a couple of years to complete, depending upon the type of invention or design. That protection will exist for the lifetime of the patent or for however long that patent is renewed, and it is crucial in guarding inventions and designs from theft.
What is the length of patent protection? The length of patent protection varies depending upon the type of patent filed. In the U.S., utility patents filed on or after June 8, 1995 are protected for 20 years from the earliest filing date. Patents filed before this time were protected 20 years from the filing date or 17 years from the issue date, whichever is longer. Design patents, which cover decorative, non-functional features, are protected 14 years from the issue date if they were filed before December 18, 2013; if they were filed after that date, they receive 15 years of protection. Patent terms are sometimes adjusted in case there was a delay in issuing that patent, such as if the response was delayed or appealed, if the patent application took more than three years to consider, or if the USPTO has a backlog of pending applications.
How can the length of patent protection be prolonged? In order to protect a patent after its initial filing, the owner must pay what is called a maintenance fee. For utility patents, these fees are due three and a half, seven and a half, and eleven and a half years into the life of the original patent. Other types of patents do not require maintenance fees. After the original patent term has ended, the owner must renew the patent. This is not the same as filing for a patent, but there can be delays with renewal.
In any situation of filing or seeking protection from infringement, an inventor will need to speak with a patent attorney to determine the best course of action. Attorneys should understand the type of patent being sought and be able to comprehend any blueprints or specifications for an item or process. Getting these protections in place as soon as possible is the best way to ensure that intellectual property stays in the hands of its original creators.