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The patent, in law, in its most general sense, a document issued by a government conferring some special right or privilege, usually the exclusive right to an invention, for a limited amount of time.


The term “patent” is taken from the original “letters patent”, which was an open letter from the sovereign conferring some such rights. The first English patent was granted in 1449 by Henry VI to John of Utynam, giving him a monopoly on the making of stained glass for a period of 20 years. In return, John was required to teach the details of the invention to others, so that eventually they too could use the technique to establish a new industry in England.


This principle of granting a patent in exchange for revealing the details of the invention is still applied today. Modern patents protect inventions by giving the owner the right to stop anyone from using them, limited in most countries to a maximum term of 20 years. A patent, therefore, is a right to stop competition for a limited period, although it applies only in the country for which it has been granted. Thus, patents are used to protect the markets in which an invention is to be exploited. In exchange for this protection, the patent applicant has to pay certain fees and give a full technical disclosure of the invention. This disclosure is published at or before the time the patent right is granted. In the period beforehand, the invention is usually described as being “patent pending”.

Society benefits from the patent system in that it encourages the investment in and the application of the skills necessary to generate and disseminate new technologies, processes, and products. Although patent laws vary somewhat between countries, there has been considerable harmonization over recent years, particularly within Europe, where patents may be obtained either through national patent offices or through the European Patent Office, which had 18 member states at the end of 1996. Most patent laws require an invention to be: “new”—most commonly defined as not being in the public domain anywhere in the world before the date on which the patent application was first filed; and “inventive”—usually taken to mean not being obvious to the skilled worker in the technology concerned. Most patent offices search extensive databases to determine whether or not applications for patents are “new” and “inventive”.

Most patent applications are filed with the assistance of patent agents, who are specialized professionals since the wording of the application can make a crucial difference to the potential value of the granted patent. Over 35 million patents have been published over the past 100 years, making patents the largest single source of technical information available in the world today.

Reviewed By:
Ted Blake