Patents protect inventions and new discoveries that are novel and non-obvious. The main protection provided by patents is preventing others from copying the invention. However, copying is not the only way that a business can infringe on a patent. Incorporating a patented invention, or incorporating an invention sufficiently similar to a patented invention can also constitute infringement, regardless of whether it is done knowingly. In addition to enjoining your business from using the patent, a patent owner can sue you for damages. In some situations, an injunction can be equally or more costly than potential damages since it may mean legal fees, retooling costs, and inventory loss.
This article provides information on how to avoid patent infringement as well as a brief overview of different types of patents.
How to Find out if an Invention is Patented
In order for an invention or new discovery to receive patent protection, a person or company must file an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The only way to discover potentially blocking patents is to search the USPTO database. Please remember that just because there is nothing exactly like your product on the market doesn't mean that it, or something sufficiently similar to it, hasn't already received patent protection.
Although searching back 20 years is all that is needed to ensure that your business isn't committing patent infringement, it may be worth your time to search farther back. If an older patent exists covering all or part of the subject matter of your company's product, it is a good indicator that the component is safe to manufacture. If your company's product is truly novel, you may wish to consider applying for a patent yourself.
Types of Patents
In order to determine if something is protected by a patent so you can avoid committing patent infringement -- or to determine if you should seek patent protection -- it's important to understand what is eligible to receive such protection. There are three types of patents available for inventions and discoveries: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents. Regardless of the particular type of patent you are seeking, in order to receive protection, an invention or discovery must be new and non-obvious.
Getting Legal Help
Infringing on someone's patent can be very costly to your company. If you would like help avoiding patent infringement, or would like to know more about filing for a patent for your invention, you may want to contact an experienced patents attorney near you.
If you would like more information and resources related to this topic, please visit FindLaw's section on Intellectual Property.