Patents and Inventions

An office in the United States government has helped protect the property rights of inventors for more than two-hundred years. Its job is to support the progress of human creativity. I'm Faith Lapidus.  And I'm Richard Rael. The Patent and Trademark Office is our subject this week on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

Every week, thousands of people send their inventions to the United States Patent and Trademark Office near Washington, DC. The Patent Office examines each invention. Those that are judged to be new and useful will receive a patent.

The term of a patent is up to twenty years. During that time, the inventor controls the legal right to make, use or sell the invention in the United States. After twenty years, anyone can make or sell the invention.

Patents are meant to protect the chances of inventors to make money from their creations. A patent gives both inventors and investors time to develop and market a product. Patents also provide a way to share and spread technical information.

In addition to patents, the office is responsible for trademark protection. A trademark is anything that helps to identify the ownership of goods. It could be a name, sign or device. Trademark rights may be used to prevent others from using a similar mark. Yet, such rights may not prevent others from making or selling the same kinds of goods under a clearly different mark.


Almost since its creation, the United States has been seen as a country of inventors. It is not surprising that the founders of the United States included patent protection in the Constitution. They wrote that Congress should support the progress of science by giving inventors all rights to their discoveries, for a limited time.

In seventeen-ninety, President George Washington signed into law the first Patent Act of the United States. Under the measure, inventors asked the Secretary of State to consider a request for a patent. Next, the secretary would discuss the request with the secretary of war and the attorney general. They would decide if the invention or discovery was useful and important. At that time, both the president and the secretary of state signed patents.

The first American patent for an invention was given in seventeen-ninety to Samuel Hopkins. Mr. Hopkins invented a better way to make the chemical potash. As the number of patent requests grew, it became necessary to develop an organized process to deal with all the requests. The job of receiving and approving patents was given to a group of State Department employees in seventeen-ninety-three.

In eighteen-oh-two, a State Department official named William Thornton was appointed to serve as the first clerk. He was the only person responsible for receiving and recording patent requests and approving requests. His office became the first Patent Office.

Since then, more than six-million patents for inventions have been approved. They have included Thomas Edison's electric light, Alexander Graham Bell's telephone and Orville and Wilbur Wright's flying machine.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office has grown to fourteen agencies in the Department of Commerce. The agency occupies several buildings in Arlington, Virginia. It has more than five-thousand permanent employees.

The Patent and Trademark Office has one of the largest collections of scientific and technical knowledge in the world. Each year, the agency receives hundreds of thousands of requests for patents and trademarks.


Suppose you have an idea for an invention. How do you get a patent to protect your rights? The Patent and Trademark Office says the first step is to record your idea on paper. You must be sure no one else has invented a device just like yours. So you must examine the descriptions of similar devices that already have patents. This can be a big job and take a long time. Many inventors pay patent lawyers to do this job.

The Patent and Trademark Office will examine your request once you know that the idea does not have a patent already. Because the agency gets so many requests, the examination process may last two or more years.

You do not have to show that your invention works to receive a patent. All you must show is that your invention is a new idea. For example, Thomas Edison is famous for inventing the electric light bulb. Yet the light bulb design for which he received a patent never worked.

Sometimes, two or more inventors get the same idea at the same time. This happened with the telephone. One of the men involved was Alexander Graham Bell. The people who invested money in his project told him not to work on the telephone's design. They did not believe they could earn any money from the invention. However, Bell continued to work on the telephone. He arrived at the Patent Office just two hours before a competing inventor got there.

Elisha Gray had developed exactly the same idea for a telephone. He, too, did not believe the invention would be very important. Yet he went to the Patent Office when he heard that Bell was requesting a patent. Elisha Gray was too late. Alexander Graham Bell received the patent for inventing the telephone.


What kinds of inventions can receive patents? American law names many kinds of things. These include new machines, methods and products. New uses for -- or improvements to -- old inventions. And new, improved kinds of plants and animals.

An American patent protects an invention only in the United States. But you do not have to be an American citizen to receive a United States patent. In two-thousand-one, nine of the ten companies that received the largest number of patents were foreign.

Almost every nation in the world has a patent system of some kind to protect inventors. Most governments give a patent to an inventor who is the first to ask for it. Until recently, many countries honored an international treaty on patents. The treaty was signed more than one-hundred years ago.

In nineteen-ninety-five, the World Trade Organization was established. W-T-O member countries are required to provide patent protection for inventions, while permitting exceptions. Under W-T-O rules, patent protection has to last at least twenty years from the date the patent request was first made.


In two-thousand-two the United States Patent and Trademark Office celebrated its two-hundredth anniversary. President Bush said the agency has been an important influence in the nation's development.

Now, in its third century, the Patent and Trademark Office faces a number of issues. One is what to do with the growing number of patent requests awaiting consideration. The agency is slowly working its way through hundreds of thousands of requests.

One problem is a lack of money. The Patent and Trademark Office does not keep all the money it collects. During recent years, Congress has taken millions of dollars to spend on other government programs.

Former Congressman James Rogan [RO-gan] was named director of the Patent and Trademark Office in two-thousand one. Mr. Rogan proposed a plan to reform the patent process. The plan was amended after discussions between agency officials and users of the Patent and Trademark Office. Earlier this year, a subcommittee in the House of Representatives approved reform legislation. But the future of this measure is not clear.

The legislation would increase the money that the Patent and Trademark Office collects to work on requests. It would also give the office the power to decide how to use the money. Supporters say the measure would result in major improvement to the system.

But critics say the increased costs would reduce investment in scientific research and development in new technologies. They also say the costs would stop some independent inventors and small companies from using a system long tied to progress in America.

Our program was written by George Grow and Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.