What Do I Get?
For many, the formal and technical requirements for patentability mask a very simple and in some ways, a very beautiful system. At its core, the patent system is a process for striking bargain between inventors and the American People. The deal is essentially as follows: in return for inventors publicly disclosing their inventions, the federal government grants those inventors a monopoly over their inventions for 20 years.
This view of the patent system creates a common-sense “reality check” for anyone caught up in the novelty-usefulness-enablement-non-obviousness quagmire of the patent process. Think about it this way…assume an invention is not new, what benefit do the American People get if it is disclosed? None. Likewise, if an invention is obvious, the American People receive no benefit from learning about it. Also, even if an inventor has a great idea, if the invention is not described in a detailed enough way for others to understand it, the American People have not gained anything and therefore the inventor would not receive anything in return. The patent process of submissions and office-actions is really the process of convincing the U.S.P.T.O. that the American People are getting a fair deal.
And what is it that the American People get? We get an immense, meticulously organized collection of know-how capable of providing solutions to a huge variety of engineering, mechanical, biological, chemical, medical, and software challenges (to name a few.) The collection of knowledge contained in the 8 million-or-so issued patents is truly a marvel of information management. If you doubt me, spend some searching yourself. You will find detailed descriptions of machines, processes and molecules that solve problems you never even imagined. See e.g. Patent No. 3,873,755: Method for Pre-Cooking Bacon and Patent No. 7,794,386: Methods for Facilitating Weight Loss.
The U.S. patent system is not a perfect system. It is comprised of humans, with all of their flaws. But the alternative to an incentivised disclosure program is secrecy. Without a patent system, the only way to keep valuable ideas safe would be to keep them secret. In a regime where secrecy trumps disclosure, nobody wins. In order to grow and expand, ideas need to be shared, combined and recombined. Our patent system provides a powerful incentive to encourage inventors to disclose their ideas.
While the process of filing and prosecuting a patent application can be arduous, understanding the fundamental bargain of the patent system, will keep you grounded.