A patent grants an inventor protection from the unauthorized use and distribution of their invention.  An inventor who has patented their invention has exclusive rights in their production- others cannot make, use, or offer for sale the invention without their permission.

What is a Patent Infringement?

Patent infringement occurs when a person makes or sells a patented device.  When proving patent infringement, the court must show that the unauthorized product matches the “claims” that of the invention.  Alternatively, they can show that the unauthorized product is “sufficiently equivalent” to the protected invention.  Since there are many different types of patents, there are also many different types of patent infringement.

What Is Patent Enforcement?

Patent enforcement is a lawsuit filed by the patent holder against parties who have infringed upon their patent rights.  Patent enforcement usually results in one of two legal remedies.  The first is a monetary damages award, where the infringing party agrees to reimburse the patent holder for any economic losses caused by the infringement, as well as royalties.  The second involves an injunction, which is basically an order requiring the defendant to cease their infringing activities.

In many patent enforcement claims, a common defense is that the plaintiff’s patent is actually invalid.  This may be true for example if the patent is expired, or if the patent was never really obtained.  Thus, patent infringement lawsuits may require extensive research with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

What Rights Do I Have As a Patent Owner?

Once a patent has been granted to a patent owner, no other party can legally argue that they have created the invention that has been patented. This means that the patent owner owns all the rights in the patented invention and can bring an enforcement action in court to prevent a party from continuing any action involving their invention or creation. A patent owner may also be awarded damages.

A patent owner also has rights during the patent application process and can still have rights to the creation while the patent application is bending. However, before the patent application has been filed, a patent owner does not have any rights in the invention and anyone can steal or copy the idea.

When Can Patent Enforcement Occur?

As mentioned, patent enforcement claims will only be successful if the plaintiff actually holds a valid patent.  The patenting process is best seen as a series of different “stages”.  At each stage, the inventor has different legal rights, and may not be able to file a patent infringement claim until the patent is fully secured.

These five different stages are:

  • Conception:  This is where the invention is still being conceived in the inventor’s mind.  There are no documents, writings, or records of the invention yet.  Thus, the invention is not yet patented and the inventor has no legal protections yet.  Patent enforcement cannot occur yet at this stage.
  • Documentation:  This is where the inventor has proper records documenting their invention.  The documents are usually signed, dated, and attested to by witnesses.  At this point, a patent may not have been filed, but these documents do offer some legal protections.  For example, the documents may help the inventions become “trade secrets”.
  • Patent Pending:  This is where a patent has been filed but is still in the process of being approved.  After submitting a patent application, the inventor may often have to wait at least one year until the patent is fully processed.  However, they already have legal protections in their invention, mainly due to the documentation discussed above.  The date of filing may serve as protection against infringement, if it is later proven that the application does qualify for a patent.
  • Patent In-Force:  This is where the patent has been issued and is not yet expired.  At this stage, the inventor has full legal rights to control the invention and may bring a lawsuit for patent enforcement.  The patent also makes the invention public record, meaning that others can’t get patents for equivalent inventions.
  • Expiration:  At this stage the patent has expired and the owner of the patent no longer has legal protection for their product or invention.  However, the inventor can still file a patent infringement suit for any infringements that did occur while the patent was in-force.  Such lawsuits need to be filed within a certain timeframe.

Thus, the patent holder needs to be aware of this timeline, since their legal rights will vary at different points. Filing a lawsuit too early or too late may have negative effects on the outcome of the suit.

When Does a Patent Expire?

Generally speaking, the validity of patents is as follows:

  • 20 years from the date of filing for all utility patents filed prior to June 8, 1995 (or 17 years from the date the patent is issued, whichever is longer)
  • 20 years from the date of filing for utility patents filed after June 8, 1995
  • 14 years from the date of issue for design patents
  • 17 years from the date of issue for plant patents

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Patent Enforcement?

Enforcing a patent involves a complex timeline in which the inventor’s legal rights may change significantly at different stages.  If you need assistance with patent enforcement, you may wish to contact an intellectual property lawyer for advice.  Your lawyer can help you file a patent infringement lawsuit, so that you can obtain a legal remedy for any losses.