In the U.S., a patent for an invention is the grant of a property right to the inventor, issued by the Patent and Trademark Office. The right conferred by the patent grant is “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” the invention in the United States or “importing” the invention into the United States. What is granted is not the right to make, use, offer for sale, sell or import, but the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, selling or importing the invention.
80% of patent information is never disclosed or published elsewhere. Patents contain a wealth of specific technical detail, research data, and drawings. Patents and patent applications often contain information on new advances long before that information is published in a journal article. If you are an inventor, you should be aware of relevant prior art in your technology. If you are an entrepreneur, you should monitor your competitors' new products, and where they are patented. If you are involved in applied research, you need to review new and pending patents in your discipline.
The America Invents Act (Patent Reform Act) went into effect on 16 March 2013. It switched the U.S. patent system from “first to invent” to “first to file” and is the most significant change to the system in nearly 60 years. The act has wide ramifications concerning the kinds of innovations that are patentable, who owns inventions, who can use inventions, and how patents are challenged and defended.
Some people confuse patents and copyrights. Although there may be some similarities among these kinds of intellectual property protection, they are different and serve different purposes.
Copyright is a form of protection provided to the authors of “original works of authorship” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished. The copyright protects the form of expression rather than the subject matter of the writing. For example, a description of a machine could be copyrighted, but this would only prevent others from copying the description; it would not prevent others from writing a description of their own or from making and using the machine. Copyrights are registered by the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress (not the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office). For information on copyright, see the Copyright guide.