Protecting your intellectual property

September 07, 2010

Jack Ganssle-September 07, 2010

Thomas Edison became a folk hero in no small part due to the perceived embodiment of him as a typical American, bootstrapping himself from obscurity to fame and wealth via a series of inventions. The notion of the backyard mechanic/tinkerer is deeply ingrained in the U.S. story, as it should be. We are a nation of problem solvers, our practical Yankee ingenuity having morphed from improving plows to putting billions of transistors on a fleck of silicon.

Our Constitution protects the rights of inventors. Article I, section 8 grants Congress the 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." This one phrase spawned the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), now a 10,000-employee behemoth that is a part of the Department of Commerce.

Interestingly, another Thomas, the inventor at Monticello, was opposed to any form of monopoly, including patents. At one point he wanted an addition to the Bill of Rights that would have prohibited all monopolies.

The U.S. system is hardly unique. It draws on the 1623 Statute of Monopolies enacted by Parliament in England, which in turn stemmed from traditions in Renaissance Italy and ancient Greece. Today, the European Patent Office handles patents from 37 member states. That organization, coupled with the USPTO and Japan's Patent Office are called The Trilateral Offices as they process the bulk of patents around the world. China, though, is not far behind. Their growth in applications far outpaces such growth here.

In the U.S., half a million applications are filed a year. That's nearly five times the number in 1980. But only 38% were granted—down from 59% 30 years ago (source: Are ideas getting worse or are the examiners more demanding?

A quarter of U.S. patent applications are from California inventors. Half of U.S. grants are, amazingly, to people in other countries; 38% of those go to Japan, 10% each to Germany and South Korea, and 8% to Taiwan. Trinidad and Tobago and Vietnam each received two U.S. patents last year (

In the last two and a third centuries about 7 million U.S. patents have been granted, including number 6469 to one A. Lincoln in 1849, who later went on to much greater fame. It took just under a century to get to patent number 100,000 (for a horse sun bonnet), another 41 years to reach number 1,000,000, and number 2,000,000 was awarded just 24 years later. Both numbers 1,000,000 and 2,000,000 were for tires, reflecting the growing importance of the automobile in our society in the first half of the twentieth century.

Patent basics
Patents come in a handful of flavors, but few are other than utility patents, which protect an invention or an improvement to an existing invention. A utility patent stifles competition for 20 years from the date of filing (not the date of the grant). Figure around two years to go from filing to an issued patent.

Patents are typically written using a quite stilted form of the English language. They have several sections, but the most important are the claims and the preferred embodiment (also known as the specification).

The claims are the real meat of the patent and that's where you'll find what the inventor is, well, claiming as his unique contribution. Any number may exist, though the number does effect the cost of obtaining the patent. An example claim (from patent 6,000,000) is:

1. A method of sharing information on a first computer system and a second computer system, said method comprising:

  • connecting said first computer system to said second computer system with a data communications link;
  • providing a library of functions in said second computer system for accessing information on said first computer system;
  • creating a conduit program database, said conduit program database for storing a list of conduit programs that may be executed;
  • registering a first conduit program by placing an identifier for said first conduit program in said conduit program database, said first conduit program comprising a computer program on said second computer system for performing a specific data transfer task;
  • successively executing a set of conduit programs identified within said conduit program database from a manager program, each of said conduit programs accessing said library of functions for communicating with said first computer system.

Each clause is called a "limitation," which further refines the scope of the invention.

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