A patent for an invention – a process, a machine, an article of manufacture, or a composition of matter (for example, a new chemical compound or plant variety) – gives the inventor the exclusive legal right to prevent other people from commercially manufacturing, using, selling, importing, or distributing that invention without the inventor’s permission.

Like trademarks, patents aren’t automatic. An inventor who wishes to patent an invention must apply to the federal government. The application must be detailed enough to demonstrate that the invention meets the criteria for “patentability”: it must be (1) “novel” (not previously patented or known or used by other people); (2) useful (have an identifiable and specific real-world application); and (3) non-obvious (reflect some degree of unique insight into the particular problem being solved).

In exchange for providing the public – through the federal government, which publishes each patent application – with knowledge of the invention, the inventor is granted the right to enjoy a “monopoly” (or total control) over the new process, machine, article of manufacture, or composition of matter for a period of 20 years. Anyone who manufactures, uses, sells, imports, or distributes the patented invention during the period of patent protection without the permission of the “patent holder” commits “patent infringement.” However, after the patent expires, the invention enters the “public domain” and may be manufactured, used, sold, imported, or distributed by anyone.

The very first United States patent – for the process of making potash (which is an important ingredient in fertilizer) – was issued to Samuel Hopkins in July of 1790 and signed by President George Washington himself. The United States’ most famous inventor – Thomas Edison – received more than 1,000 United States patents and 2,300 worldwide.

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