In general, the United States (unlike many other countries) grants a patent right to the first person to invent a product or process rather than to the first person to file for a patent on that product or process. As a practical matter, however, someone who invents a product or process but does not file immediately should keep detailed research notes or other evidence that would document the date of invention. An inventor who fails to apply for a patent within a year of that date would forfeit the rights granted to an inventor who had published details of the invention or offered it for sale. But until the year has passed, the PTO may not issue a patent to X if Y has described the invention in a printed publication here or abroad or the invention has been in public use or on sale in this country.
An inventor cannot obtain a patent automatically; obtaining a patent is an expensive and time-consuming process, and the inventor will need the services of a patent attorney, a highly specialized practitioner. The attorney will help develop the required specification, a description of the invention that gives enough detail so that one skilled in the art will be able to make and use the invention. After receiving an application, a PTO examiner will search the records and accept or reject the claim. Usually, the attorney will negotiate with the examiner and will rewrite and refine the application until it is accepted. A rejection may be appealed, first to the PTO’s Board of Appeals and then, if that fails, to the federal district court in the District of Columbia or to the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the successor court to the old US Court of Customs and Patent Appeals.
Once a patent application has been filed, the inventor or a company to which she has assigned the invention may put the words “patent pending” on the invention. These words have no legal effect. Anyone is free to make the invention as long as the patent has not yet been issued. But they do put others on notice that a patent has been applied for. Once the patent has been granted, infringers may be sued even if the infringed has made the product and offered it for sale before the patent was granted.
In today’s global market, obtaining a US patent is important but is not usually sufficient protection. The inventor will often need to secure patent protection in other countries as well. Under the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property (1883), parties in one country can file for patent or trademark protection in any of the other member countries (172 countries as of 2011). The World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) established standards for protecting intellectual property rights (patents, trademarks, and copyrights) and provides that each member nation must have laws that protect intellectual property rights with effective access to judicial systems for pursuing civil and criminal penalties for violations of such rights.
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