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How Patents Work


The Patent Process
A motorized ice-cream cone, patented in 1998 by Richard Hartman. The patent (# 5,971,829) describes the device as 'A novelty amusement eating receptacle for supporting, rotating and sculpting a portion of ice cream or similarly malleable food while it is being consumed.' Even this relatively simple novelty item has a fairly extensive patent. It includes seven claims and six drawings, and it cites 15 earlier patents.
A motorized ice-cream cone, patented in 1998 by Richard Hartman. The patent (# 5,971,829) describes the device as 'A novelty amusement eating receptacle for supporting, rotating and sculpting a portion of ice cream or similarly malleable food while it is being consumed.' Even this relatively simple novelty item has a fairly extensive patent. It includes seven claims and six drawings, and it cites 15 earlier patents.

­Patents and copyrights are closely connected forms of intellectual-property protection, but the respective processes of acquiring them could hardly be more different. As we've seen, any original work of art is automatically copyrighted as soon as it is put into some tangible form. To strengthen that protection, the creator may write a simple copyright notice, which includes the word "copyright" or the copyright symbol, the copyright-holder's name and the year of creation. To get a patent, however, you need to fill out a stack of forms, do extensive research and, in most cases, hire a lawyer.

Let's say you're a brilliant inventor, and you come up with an ingenious teleporter, a device that can move people across the room by scanning them, replicating them exactly at another point and destroying the original. To make things simple, let's assume that you only want to patent your idea in the United States. Once your prototype is finished, and you've successfully beamed your cat and a few incredulous family members across the room, the first thing you need to do is search the United States Patent and Trademark Office's patent database to see what similar ideas have been patented. You can do this at the Patent Search Room in Arlington, Virginia, or online at the U.S. Patent Office site.

­When you search the database, you come up with two related machines: a machine that can tele­port single quantum particles and a highly-sensitive medical scanner that analyzes the 1028 atoms that make up the human body and stores the information in a large database. Your machine uses a similar scanner to catalog the tiny particles that make up a person, and replicates these particles in the same sort of way as the quantum teleporter. But you have added the crucial element that makes human teleportation possible: a sophisticated computer system that can arrange the replicated quantum particles in exactly the same configuration as the original.

At this point, you know that your invention is new, but you don't know what the scope of your patent should be. You haven't invented teleportation, per se, but you have made it practicable on a grand scale. Confused as to how you should proceed, you decide to enlist an expert's help. There are two main types of patent professionals: patent lawyers and patent agents. Patent lawyers are attorneys with a science or technical degree who have met the patent office's qualifications (their professional credentials have been reviewed and they have passed a qualifying test). Patent agents are people who have met the patent office's qualifications but are not recognized as attorneys. Some inventors work through the patent process themselves (called working pro se), but most hire a patent lawyer or patent agent early on in the process.

A patent lawyer performs a number of different tasks for the inventor. Let's take a look at how your lawyer (let's call her Suzy) would help you patent your teleporter.


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