Patent: Legal Definition, Importance, Types and Application Process

What is a Patent?

A patent is a legal right granted to an inventor, providing exclusive use of their invention for a limited time, typically 20 years, in exchange for public disclosure of the invention’s details to promote further innovation and knowledge sharing.

Introduction to Patents

A patent is a legal instrument that grants an inventor the exclusive right to make, use, sell, and distribute their invention for a limited period, typically 20 years from the filing date.

The essence of a patent is to incentivise innovation by providing inventors the chance to recoup their investment in the research and development of new products or technologies.

In exchange for this exclusive right, the inventor must publicly disclose the details of the invention, thereby enriching the public domain of knowledge and fostering further innovation.

The Importance of Patents

Patents play a crucial role in fostering innovation and economic growth. They do so by providing inventors and companies with a temporary monopoly on their creations, thereby offering a competitive advantage in the market.

This exclusivity period allows inventors to profit from their inventions, which is essential for recouping the investment made in developing the invention and funding future research and development activities.

Moreover, patents facilitate the transfer of technology through licensing agreements, enabling broader dissemination and application of innovations across different industries and sectors.

Types of Patents

There are generally three main types of patents under the law of intellectual property: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents.

Utility patents are the most common type, covering new and useful processes, machines, manufactures, or compositions of matter. Design patents, on the other hand, protect the unique visual qualities of a manufactured item.

Lastly, plant patents are granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plant.

What Can Be Patented?

An invention can be patented if it is new, involves an inventive step, and is capable of industrial application. This includes processes, machines, manufactures, compositions of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.

The invention must be novel, not obvious to someone skilled in the field, and must have a practical application.

The Patent Application Process

The process of obtaining a patent is complex and requires careful navigation through legal and technical requirements.

It typically involves preparing a detailed patent application that includes a written description of the invention (the specification), claims that define the scope of the patent protection sought, and often drawings.

After submission, the application undergoes examination by a patent office, where an examiner assesses the invention’s novelty, non-obviousness, and utility.

This process can take several years and often requires the applicant to argue the patentability of their invention through responses to the examiner’s rejections or objections.

Challenges in Patent Law

One of the primary challenges in patent law is the balance between providing enough incentive for inventors and ensuring that the patent system does not stifle further innovation and competition.

Issues such as patent trolls, who exploit patent rights purely for litigation and financial gains rather than for producing or commercialising inventions, highlight the potential for abuse within the system.

Additionally, the rapid pace of technological advancement, especially in fields like software and biotechnology, poses challenges for patent law, which must continually adapt to address the unique characteristics of these innovations.

Read article: 7 Examples of Patent Trolling: Legal and Regulatory Provisions to Combat Patent Trolling

Recent Trends and Developments

Recent years have seen significant shifts in patent law, driven by advancements in technology, changes in legislation, and landmark court decisions.

For example, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) presents new questions about inventorship, as AI systems increasingly contribute to the creative process.

Additionally, global concerns, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have sparked debates over patent rights versus public access to essential medicines and technologies, leading to discussions about patent waivers or compulsory licensing as mechanisms to ensure broader access to life-saving technologies.

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What Happens To A Patent After 20 Years?

After 20 years, a patent expires, and the protected invention enters the public domain, allowing anyone to use, manufacture, sell, or import the invention without the need for permission from the patent holder.

This transition aims to encourage innovation and competition by making the information and technology available to the public, thereby fostering further development and improvement upon the original invention.

Patent expiration is a critical phase in the lifecycle of an invention, marking the point at which it becomes a communal resource.

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Can A Patent Be Renewed After 20 Years?

Generally, patents cannot be renewed after their standard term of 20 years from the filing date.

Once a patent expires, the invention falls into the public domain, allowing anyone to use or sell the invention without infringement.

There are, however, a few exceptions and considerations:

Pharmaceutical Patents: In some jurisdictions, pharmaceutical patents may qualify for patent term extensions to compensate for the time taken in regulatory approval processes. These extensions are meant to restore a portion of the patent term lost during the time the product was undergoing regulatory review.

Maintenance Fees: While not a renewal, in many jurisdictions, patent holders must pay maintenance fees at regular intervals to keep the patent in force for its full term. Failure to pay these fees can result in the patent expiring before the 20-year term.

Utility Models or Innovation Patents: Some countries offer utility models or innovation patents, which are similar to patents but with a shorter term (usually 7 to 10 years) and no possibility for renewal.

Patent Term Adjustments (PTA): In the United States, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) may grant Patent Term Adjustments (PTAs) to compensate for USPTO delays in processing patents, effectively extending the term beyond 20 years. However, this is not a renewal but an adjustment based on specific circumstances during the patent prosecution process.

The United Kingdom offers Supplementary Protection Certificates (SPCs) for pharmaceutical and plant protection products, extending the patent life to compensate for time lost to regulatory approval processes. However, this is specifically for market entry delays, not for patent office delays.

In essence, once the standard term of a patent has concluded, it cannot be renewed to prolong exclusivity beyond its intended lifespan, except under specific and limited conditions that may extend its effective duration.

Can Software Be Patented?

Software can be patented if it meets the general criteria for patentability: it must be novel, involve an inventive step (non-obviousness), and be capable of industrial application (useful).

However, the patentability of software varies significantly between jurisdictions, with some countries having stricter requirements for patenting software-related inventions, often requiring that the software be part of a larger, novel technical solution.

What Is The Difference Between A Provisional And A Non-Provisional Patent Application?

A provisional patent application is a preliminary step that allows the inventor to establish an early filing date and is less formal and cheaper than a non-provisional application. It does not lead directly to a patent and expires after 12 months.

A non-provisional patent application is a complete application that is examined by a patent office and can lead to a patent grant. It includes detailed descriptions, claims, and often drawings of the invention.

Can A Patent Be Enforced Worldwide?

Patents are inherently territorial and offer protection strictly within the borders of the country or region where they are granted.

This limitation means that inventors seeking global protection for their innovations must navigate a complex web of international laws and regulations.

The Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) provides a unified procedure for filing patent applications to protect inventions in multiple countries simultaneously.

By filing a single international patent application under the PCT, inventors can simultaneously seek protection for an invention in over 150 countries around the world.

However, the PCT process does not result in the issuance of an “international patent.”

Instead, it simplifies the initial filing and preliminary examination process, deferring the decision on patentability to the national or regional patent offices in a process known as the national phase.

Each patent office then decides according to its laws whether to grant patent protection within its jurisdiction.

This system requires inventors to eventually engage with local patent laws and, in many cases, to translate their applications into the local language, adding to the complexity and cost of obtaining patent protection in multiple countries.

Despite these challenges, the PCT system significantly eases the process of seeking patent protection on a global scale, offering a strategic tool for inventors to protect their inventions worldwide.


Patents are a vital component of the global innovation landscape, providing a framework that enables inventors to protect and profit from their inventions while ultimately contributing to the public domain of knowledge.

While the patent system faces ongoing challenges and criticisms, its core principles remain essential for fostering innovation, driving economic growth, and facilitating the dissemination of new technologies.

As the world continues to evolve, so too will the laws and policies governing patents, requiring ongoing dialogue, adaptation, and reform to ensure that the patent system serves its intended purpose of promoting progress in the arts and sciences.


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