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patent law: an overview

Patents grant an inventor the right to exclude others from producing or using the inventor's discovery or invention for a limited period of time. U.S. patent laws were enacted by Congress under its Constitutional grant of authority to protect the discoveries of inventors. See U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8. The main body of law concerning patents is found in Title 35 of the United States Code. In order to be patented an invention must be novel, useful, and not of an obvious nature. See 101 - 103 of Title 35. Such "utility" patents are issued for four general types of inventions/discoveries: machines, human made products, compositions of matter, and processing methods. See 101 of Title 35. Changing technology has led to an ever expanding understanding of what constitutes a human made product. Specific additions to the Patent Act provide, in addition, for design and plant patents.

Prior to a recent amendment prompted by the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) accompanying the Uruguay Round GATT, patents were normally issued for a non-renewable period of seventeen years, measured from the date of issuance. See 154 of Title 35. Under the amended provision (which took effect June 8, 1995) the term will be twenty years measured from the date of application.

Patent infringement cases arise under Federal patent law over which the Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction. See 1338(a) of Title 28 of The United States Code.

The Federal agency charged with administering patent laws is the Patent and Trademark Office. See 1-26 of Title 35. Its regulations, pertaining to Patents, are found in Parts 2 - 6 of Title 37 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Each patent application for an alleged new invention is reviewed by a examiner to determine if it is entitled to a patent. See 1.104 of Part 1 of Title 37 (C.F.R.). While historically a model was required as part of a patent application, in most cases today, only a detailed specification is necessary. See 112 - 114 of Title 35.

If an application is rejected, the decision may be appealed to the Patents Office's Board of Appeals, with further or alternative review available from the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, or in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. See 134, 141, & 145 of Title 35.

In 1975 the Patent Cooperation Treaty was incorporated into Title 35. See 351 - 376 of Title 35.


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