A patent is a set of exclusive rights granted by a state (national government) to an inventor or their assignee for a limited period of time in exchange for a public disclosure of an invention.

The procedure for granting patents, the requirements placed on the patentee, and the extent of the exclusive rights vary widely between countries according to national laws and international agreements. Typically, however, a patent application must include one or more claims defining the invention which must be new, non-obvious, and useful or industrially applicable. In many countries, certain subject areas are excluded from patents, such as business methods, treatment of the human body and mental acts. The exclusive right granted to a patentee in most countries is the right to prevent others from making, using, selling, or distributing the patented invention without permission. It is just a right to prevent others’ use. A patent does not give the proprietor of the patent the right to use the patented invention, should it fall within the scope of an earlier patent.

A patent is not a right to practice or use the invention. Rather, a patent provides the right to exclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale, or importing the patented invention for the term of the patent, which is usually 20 years from the filing date subject to the payment of maintenance fees. A patent is, in effect, a limited property right that the government offers to inventors in exchange for their agreement to share the details of their inventions with the public. Like any other property right, it may be sold, licensed, mortgaged, assigned or transferred, given away, or simply abandoned.

There is a common misconception that a patent is “a government grant that gives the holder exclusive rights to a process, design, plant or new invention for a designated period of time.”

In fact, a patent is not an exclusive right to anything at all, but rather the right to exclude OTHERS from

  • making
  • copying
  • using
  • selling (or offering to sell) or
  • importing

Patents generally cover technological advances – new products and processes. To be patented, an invention must meet three criteria: it should be novel, innovative and useful. An invention cannot be patented if it is simply a discovery. Neither can it be a scientific theory or mathematical method; a literary, dramatic or artistic work; a scheme or method for performing a mental act, playing a game or doing business; the presentation of information; or a computer program. (Rights to many of these are covered by copyright law.)

It is not possible to get a patent for ‘inventing’ a new animal or plant variety by traditional breeding methods; nor for a new surgical or therapeutic method of treatment of either humans or animals, or a method of diagnosis. However, genetically engineered plants and animals can be patented. So can naturally-occurring chemical codes and cellular substances – like genes or hormones – as long as they are isolated from the body by novel technical means, and a use is clearly specified for them.