protection of intellectual property

The Congress shall have 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.

U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8

Patents, Copyrights and Trademarks

This section compiles brief summaries about patents, copyrights, and trademarks. For more detailed information, refer to the Inventor's Guide to Technology Transfer.

What Is a Patent?

  • A monopoly granted by the government allowing you to exclude others from “making, using, selling or importing” your invention for 20 years.
  • Patents are limited by territory (a U.S. patent only protects your invention in the United States, a French patent in France, and so on).
  • Every country has its own patent laws and pattern of patent enforcement.
  • Patent law came about because the government wanted to encourage dissemination of information, and did so by granting limited-term monopolies to inventors in exchange for the sharing of information.
  • Patent law is part of the U.S. Constitution.

Types of Patents

  • Utility Patent
    • Machine — robot, motor, circuit
    • Process — method of manufacturing
    • Article of manufacture — frying pan, hair comb
    • Composition of matter — chemical compound
  • Design Patent — ornamental design, appearance
  • Plant Patent — new and distinct variety of plant

What Is Patentable?

  • Novel (that is, no one, even yourself, has published it before).
  • Non-obvious (that is, to someone skilled in your field).
  • Useful (you must have a use for your invention).

The Patenting Process

It can take many years to get a patent granted from the patent office. Here is a brief description of the process in the United States:

  • Patent Application Prepared & Filed (U.S.)
  • Patent Pending (no legal protection)
  • Patent Office Responds (“office action”)
  • Reply to Patent Office
  • Repeat
  • Patent Application published (after 18 months)
  • Patent Allowed
  • Patent Issued (legal protection begins)
  • Patent Printed

Who Is an Inventor?

Inventorship is decided according to patent law. To be an inventor, one must make a novel, useful and non-obvious contribution to at least one claim of the patent. Sharing materials or testing an invention is not sufficient to make someone an inventor. 

Correct inventorship is important. Incorrect inventorship can lead to invalidation of a patent. The Office of Technology Licensing can help you figure out who is, and who is not, an inventor.

What Is "Public Disclosure"?

A public disclosure is a disclosure of enough of an invention, that someone knowledgeable in the field, can re-create the whole invention. This is called an “enabling” invention. Disclosure can include a journal publication, a Web publication and may include abstracts, posters and public talks. Federal grants are not considered public disclosure until they are funded, at which point the may become publicly available. Be aware of early Web publication of journal articles and conference abstracts.

How Does Publication Affect Patent Rights?

In most of the world, all patent rights will be lost if an invention is published before a patent application is filed. In the United States, you can file a patent up to one year after a public disclosure.

What Is a "Confidentiality" or "Nondisclosure Agreement," and Why Is It Necessary?

A confidentiality or nondisclosure agreement is an agreement in which two parties agree to keep certain information “confidential” and not to disclose it to third parties. If you wish to speak to a company about your invention prior to filing a patent, we recommend doing so under a confidentiality or nondisclosure agreement to preserve the university's right to file a patent. The Office of Technology Licensing can provide sample agreements or negotiate the agreements with companies.

How Much Does It Cost to Get a Patent?

  • To file a U.S. patent application:
    • Approximately $10,000
  • To prosecute to issuance in the United States:
    • Approximately $20,000
  • To file a foreign (PCT) application:
    • Approximately $5,000
  • For life of foreign patents (in Europe, Canada and Japan):
    • Approximately $200,000

What Is a Copyright?

  • Protects original works, fixed in a tangible medium (such as written words, computer code, mask works, design schematics, architectural drawings, musical works and choreography).
  • Gives the exclusive right to: reproduce, create derivatives, distribute, perform, display.
  • Protects expression of ideas, not ideas themselves.
  • Lasts for 100 years from creation or 75 years from publication.
  • Protection is automatic, but must register to sue infringers.

What Is a Trademark?

  • Symbol, design, word, slogan, combination of words and pictures used to identify products and distinguish them from those of competitors (e.g., Coca-Cola slogan is words, design and colors).
  • Must actively protect it.
  • Trademark must be different than generic product (e.g., Rollerblades vs. in-line skates).

For additional information on patents and related topics, please visit the following Web sites: