Patents: an introduction
Online patent advice
Patents are, broadly speaking, legal privileges granted by the state to inventors to use their invention exclusively for a certain period of time. The advantages of encouraging innovation outweigh, in the opinion of most governments, the disadvantages of permitting a temporary monopoly. Opponents to this view included the government of the USSR - which predictably had a rather different view of intellectual property to its capitalist counterparts - and Thomas Jefferson, who was out of the country and missed the clause about patenting and copyrighting discreetly inserted into Article II of the US Constitution. In practice, the patent right works negatively by preventing other people from using the invention, but the principle stands: a patent is a reward by the government for the effort involved in thinking up something new and useful. On this site you'll find information on what a patent looks like, whether to apply for one, how to apply for one, and who can help you do so.
In our ever-changing world, the issue of patenting is one of many that are becoming more complicated. Patents were designed, in essence, to aid the process of invention - to reward and defend the effort involved in coming up with ideas. But there are some people who say that patenting is becoming too prolific, particularly in the area of scientific discovery, and that the process is now hindering rather than helping the flow and generation of new knowledge. It's often universities who come up with new research. They need to generate money as much as anyone else but also may patent a discovery to keep it out of the hands of corporations. Authorities as respected as the British Royal Society (which issued a report on the issue in 2003) are concerned that some of the patents being granted in areas such as medicine and IT are too broad. Since the legal function of patents is to prevent other people doing what you are doing, these broad patents, the argument goes, are seriously restricting the creative potential for other experts in the field. The most notorious example of this is arguably (because it of course depends on your point of view - if you're applying for the patent you obviously don't think it's a bad thing) the rush to patent genes. This trend, as with many within the area of patenting, is influenced by American patent law, but everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. There are patents and patent applications on hundreds of thousands of genes or gene sequences - function still unknown for some of them. Humans, trees, spiders and squid: you name it, someone will patent it.
But that's a debate for another day. When you've got through this site, there are plenty of other sources of useful information on the subject of patents. The US government patent office site, www.uspto.gov, is one place to start. There's also the World Industrial Property Organization (www.wipo.int). And Patents, Copyrights and Trademarks for Dummies by Henri Charmasson is a very useful and comprehensive book on US patent procedure, although you will have to brace yourself for the jokes.