So far, we've seen that patents grant inventors ownership of their original ideas, giving them temporary control over who can use those ideas. This system shows up in some form or another in most all developed nations, because it is so important to a country's development. Patents affect society in a number of a ways, but at their core, they serve a very basic function: They help encourage the advancement of science and technology.
Patents do this in two major ways:
- They give inventors an opportunity to profit from their creations. The process of inventing a new device or process is an extremely difficult one, and few people would go through it if there weren't any financial reward.
- They help disseminate technological information to other inventors. When you apply for a patent, you are required to submit a detailed description of your invention. This description becomes part of the patent office's database, which is public record. Once the patent has expired, the idea is more readily available than it would have been if it had never been patented.
Patents motivate individual inventors, but they also motivate large companies. They are particularly important to chemical, computer-technology and pharmaceutical firms. In these markets, your success might be wholly dependent on having exclusive rights to innovative products. Intellectual property makes up a huge chunk of these companies' assets. Currently, IBM leads the pack in the invention race, boasting more than 2,000 patents in 1999 and again in 2000.
When something is invented as part of a person's work for a company, the company is typically given control over the invention, though the patent may officially go to the individual inventor. This arrangement varies depending on the country and the nature of the employee's contract. If you are contracted to grant your employer all patent rights to your work, selling your own invention would actually be infringing your own patent (and your employer could take you to court). The same holds for copyrighted "work-for-hire." You may be the original creator, but if you republish the work yourself, you are infringing the copyright.
In the next section, we'll find out how an inventor actually goes about patenting an idea. As we'll see, this is usually a long, expensive and difficult process.