What is a Patent? - Definition & Overview

Instructor: Shawn Grimsley
Patents are an important part of intellectual property rights. In this lesson, you'll learn what a patent is and some of the key concepts related to it. A short quiz follows the lesson.


In the United States, a patent is a right granted by the federal government that prohibits anyone but the owner of an invention from making, using or selling it for a specific period of time. The U.S. government has the power to grant patents pursuant to Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution. Patents are currently effective for 20 years from the filing date. The legal document that grants an inventor a patent is called letters patent.

Conceptual Framework

A patent is considered personal property of the inventor. Once the inventor is granted a patent, she may transfer her patent rights to another. For example, a research company may employ a scientist who invents a new medical device. Once the patent is granted, the scientist will transfer the patent to the company as part of her contract with the employer.

A patent holder also has the ability to grant a license to another person or entity to use the invention in return for payment of a fee or royalty. For example, a company may hold a patent on a machine but then decide it really doesn't want to manufacture or market that machine. Instead, the company decides to license the right to manufacture and sell the machines to one or more companies who will pay the patent holder a certain percentage of each sale called a royalty.

You should note that inventors are not required to patent their inventions. They can freely give the invention to the world and allow others to replicate it. Alternatively, they can hold the invention's design as a trade secret. When you apply for a patent, you must submit a patent application to the U.S. Patent and Trade Office which describes the invention in detail. If a patent is granted, the design of the invention can be discovered by the public. The advantage of a trade secret is that you can keep the design a secret, but you will not have the same legal protections a patent provides you.

Patent Requirements

The federal government provides a broad definition of what is patentable. The Patent Act provides that the following can be patented: 'any new or useful process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof.'

The Patent Act goes on to define these terms, but we won't get that far down into the weeds in this lesson. It is important to note that things that occur naturally in nature are not patentable. In fact, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled in 2013 that human genes couldn't be patented.

An invention must meet three elements in order to be patentable:

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