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Patent Infringements: Definition and Cases

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  • 0:05 Patents
  • 3:14 Patent Infringement
  • 5:54 Patent Claims
  • 8:19 Patent Litigation
  • 10:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

Patent infringement is a complicated civil cause of action. There are many, various components to patent infringement. Generally, it's the use of a patented object without the patent owner's permission. This lesson explains patent infringement.

Patents

When someone invents or improves a tangible and functional object, that person will usually want to apply for a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO. A patent is a legal document that protects a party's intellectual property rights in an invention.

A patent application is a complicated process involving many detailed steps. Once filed with the USPTO, an application is numbered. Applications are reviewed in the order they were received. It often takes two years or more for an application to be reviewed. This is why we commonly see the patent pending designation. This designation means that an application has been filed, but the patent has not yet been granted or denied. During this waiting period, the inventor can sometimes enjoy certain limited legal protections for his or her invention.

Once the USPTO grants a patent, that patent serves as the property right in the invention. This right means that the patent owner can exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the patented item in the U.S., or importing the item into the U.S. To do so is patent infringement. Patent infringement is a federal, civil cause of action alleging that one person used another person's patented item without the patent owner's permission.

For example, let's say that I invent a negative ion pet hair dryer for use in my pet-grooming salon, Barks and Bubbles. It's shaped like a bubble, so that the entire dog can be encased in the dryer. The dryer produces negative ions to speed drying time, reduce static, and leave the dog hair smooth and silky.

I hire an attorney and file a utility patent application for my pet hair dryer. This is, by far, the most common type of patent. It's used for new and useful processes, machines and articles for manufacture. A patent can also be a design patent, which is used for new, original, and ornamental designs for an article of manufacture. Or, a patent can be a plant patent, which is used exclusively for new and distinct, invented, or discovered plants.

I'm granted the patent and, like other utility patents, I'll own this patent for 20 years from the date of my application. However, just a few months after receiving my patent, I run into trouble. I learn that a competing pet-grooming business, Wash and Woof, is advertising the use of a new and innovative negative ion pet hair dryer. Wash and Woof hasn't contacted me or asked my permission to use the special dryer. I contact my attorney because I think I have a patent infringement case against Wash and Woof.

Patent Infringement

My patent attorney explains to me that there are several different ways patent infringement can occur. Generally, patent infringement occurs when someone:

  • Makes
  • Uses
  • Offers for sale or
  • Sells any patented item without the patent owner's permission

Notice that patent infringement doesn't require the stealing of the patented item, or an illegal acquiring of the patented idea for the item. I think Wash and Woof purposely infringed my patent in order to steal my customers, but I won't have to prove malicious intent on their part in order to prove patent infringement.

For example, let's say that ABC Company in California patents a formula for a new multivitamin that removes skin wrinkles. Company XYZ in New York has been working on the same formula, independently, for many years and finally perfects it. Company XYZ cannot legally sell its vitamins with the new formula after ABC Company patents the formula because ABC Company now owns the patent for the formula. In ABC Company's lawsuit for patent infringement, ABC Company only has to prove that Company XYZ's formula is essentially the same as their patented formula. If ABC Company proves this, then ABC Company will win their patent infringement suit against Company XYZ.

I'm filing a federal lawsuit against Wash and Woof for patent infringement. I'm alleging that Wash and Woof made and is using my patented item without my authorization. Like most patent infringement suits, I'm asking the court for an injunction. This is a court order preventing the defendant from continuing to use my patented item. My injunction will order Wash and Woof to immediately stop using the special pet hair dryers.

I'm also asking the court for an award of damages. This is a common request in patent infringement cases and is a money award meant to compensate the patent owner for any loss incurred due to the defendant's patent infringement. My damages award should grant me money for any business I lost to Wash and Woof due to their use of my patent. This award should also grant me the profits Wash and Woof made due to their unauthorized use of my patent.

Patent Claims

When determining whether patent infringement has occurred, the court will largely rely on the claims of the patent. Claims are found on the patent application and are the parts of the patent that define specific patent protection by explaining the scope and innovation of the invention. This language puts others on notice of what will, and what will not, infringe on a patent based on what the patent owner asserts. These patent claims describe the important and unique elements of the invention and serve as the legal basis for any future patent infringement lawsuits.

In my case, my patent claims will be compared to Wash and Woof's advertisement claims. If their claims don't fall within the language of my patent claims, then there's no literal patent infringement. However, it's important to note that the claims don't have to be an exact match in order to constitute patent infringement. Sometimes the patent claims and the defendant's claims are essentially the same or sufficiently equivalent. This is usually enough for a finding of patent infringement.

For example, my patent claims include that my dryer is a bubble shape and that the entire dog is encased in the dryer. Wash and Woof doesn't use a bubble. Instead, their dryer hooks to the grooming table, and the dog is moved through the dryer in much the same way that a car moves through an automatic car wash. This is different than my invention and may even be considered an improvement to my invention.

However, I've also claimed that my dryer is a negative ion dryer that produces faster and more desirable results than traditional dryers. Wash and Woof advertises the same thing for their new dryer. Wash and Woof's dryer is most likely an infringement on my dryer because it uses the same elements as those claimed in my dryer. Also, the way it works and the end result are the substantial equivalent to my dryer. Wash and Woof probably won't be able to provide sufficient legal evidence to prove that their dryer is unique and different and not covered by the claims of my patent.

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