Explainer: What is a patent?

Patents protect intellectual property from theft

intellectual property

Ideas that become inventions need to be protected by patents.


The same way it’s against the law to steal someone’s bike or car, it’s also illegal to steal a novel invention. The reason: That invention is also considered property. Lawyers refer to it as “intellectual property.” That means it is something new that never existed until someone thought it up. But the only way to guard that new invention from theft is to promptly patent it.

Governments issue patents. A patent is a document that gives an inventor the right to prevent others from making, using or selling a novel device, process or application for something. Of course, others can in fact make, use or sell someone else’s patented invention — but only with the creator’s permission.

A creator gives his or her permission by “licensing” a patented invention to a person or company. Usually, that license will cost a lot of money. But there are exceptions. Sometimes the U.S. government will license something that one of its scientists has invented for just $1. In this case, the idea is not to make a lot of money from the license. The goal instead might be to control who can make, use or sell the invention. Or it might be to keep others from getting a patent for the same invention — and then overcharging others for the license.

In the United States, George Washington signed into law the first rules for issuing patents. That was on April 10, 1790.

Each country can issue its own patents. In the United States, three classes of inventions qualify for patent protection.

Utility patents, the first type, protect processes (such as the steps that specify how to blend and heat a series of chemicals to make some product); machines or other tools used to make things; manufactured items (such as a microscope lens); or the recipes for making various materials (such as plastics, fabrics, soaps or a paper coating). These patents also cover improvements to any of the above.

Design patents protect a novel shape, pattern or decoration for something. It could be the design for a new pair of sneakers or the body of a car.

Plant patents allow breeders to cross particular species or subspecies of plants, creating varieties with new traits.

Some patents cover very complicated new products. Others may offer protection for very simple inventions. For instance, the creators of a new kind of paperclip received a U.S. patent on Dec. 9, 1980. That technology is known by its patent number — 4237587.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores. Prior to this, she was an environmental reporter for Science News, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

More Stories from Science News Explores on Science & Society