The type of patent in question plays a significant role in determining its lifespan. In the United States, for instance, there are three main types of patents: utility patents, design patents, and plant patents, each with different durations. Furthermore, the timeline within which a patent was filed can also affect its lifespan. In some cases, a patent’s life may even be extended under certain conditions. This variability in patent lifespans often leaves people perplexed about the true longevity of a patent.
Patent Duration Based on Types
Patents are divided into three main categories, each catering to a specific kind of invention: utility patent, design patent, and plant patent.
- The utility patent is granted for the invention of a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or a new and useful improvement thereof. This type of patent is the most common and protects the functional aspects of an invention.
- The design patent covers the ornamental design for an object having practical utility. In other words, it protects the unique visual qualities of a product. Unlike a utility patent that protects the way an article is used and works, a design patent protects the way an article looks.
- The plant patent is used to register the invention and asexual reproduction of a new and distinct variety of plant, excluding a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state.
Each of these types of patents has different terms, which we will delve into in the following sections.
Duration of Utility Patents
Utility patents are the backbone of the patent system, covering new machines, processes, and compositions of matter. The lifespan of a utility patent, assuming all maintenance fees are paid, typically extends to 20 years from the filing date of the earliest U.S. or international (PCT) application to which priority is claimed.
Notably, this term may be extended by a few years if the patentee can show that they cannot reasonably recoup their investment in the 20-year term. However, this extension is not easy to obtain and is mostly applicable to patents for drugs, medical devices, and additives for food.
Duration of Design Patents
Unlike utility patents, design patents have a shorter lifespan. A design patent is generally granted protection for 15 years from the date of grant and does not require the payment of maintenance fees. This patent protects the ornamental design on a functional item and is typically used for industrial designs.
Duration of Plant Patents
Plant patents, which cover distinct and new varieties of asexually reproduced plants, have a different lifespan than utility or design patents. The term of a plant patent is 20 years from the date of patent application. Like design patents, plant patents do not require the payment of maintenance fees.
How a Provisional Patent Application Affects Patent Lifespan
A provisional application is not examined and does not mature into an issued patent unless further action is taken by the applicant. However, it gives the applicant one full year to further develop the invention, seek funding, gauge market interest, or conduct other activities before deciding whether to pursue a regular patent.
While the term of a patent begins from the filing date of the nonprovisional application, the filing date of a provisional application cannot be used to extend the term of a patent. Instead, the provisional application helps to secure an earlier effective filing date, which can be instrumental in establishing the inventor’s priority over other subsequent inventions.
However, if a nonprovisional application is not filed within one year following the filing of the provisional application, the provisional application simply expires. In this case, the benefit of the earlier filing date may be lost.
Impact of Patent Maintenance Fees on Duration
While the grant of a patent establishes a fixed term, the life of a patent can be impacted by the payment, or lack thereof, of maintenance fees. For utility patents in the United States, maintenance fees are required to maintain the patent in force. These fees are due 3.5, 7.5, and 11.5 years after the patent grant.
The rationale behind maintenance fees is to encourage patent holders to assess the economic value of their patents. If a patent is not generating sufficient economic return, the patent holder may choose to not pay the maintenance fee, allowing the patent to expire prematurely and the invention to enter the public domain.
However, if a patent has high economic value, the patent holder will likely pay the maintenance fees, maintaining the patent up to its full term of 20 years. Thus, maintenance fees serve as a mechanism that allows potentially valuable inventions to remain under patent protection while also ensuring that less useful inventions can enter the public domain.
Expiration vs. Abandonment
The complex nature of patent rights often gives rise to confusion about the status of a patent, particularly when it comes to the concepts of expiration and abandonment. Discussed below are the key distinctions between patent expiration and abandonment.
Patent expiration refers to the natural end of a patent’s term. Upon expiration, the patented invention becomes part of the public domain, and anyone is free to use, make, or sell the invention without fear of infringement.
On the other hand, patent abandonment refers to the cessation of the patent process before the patent is granted, or failure to pay maintenance fees after the patent has been granted. In both cases, the result is similar to expiration in that the invention becomes available to the public. However, unlike expiration, abandonment can occur at any time, not just at the end of the patent’s maximum term.
Below are answers to common questions about the lifespan of a patent.
Q1: Can the term of a patent be extended?
Yes, under certain circumstances and within the confines of patent law, a patent term can be extended. For instance, certain pharmaceutical, food additive, and medical device patents can have their terms extended if specific conditions are met. This process is known as patent term extension. However, term extension is not available for all types of patents and varies based on the judgment of patent owners.
Q2: What happens when a patent expires?
When a patent reaches its expiration date, the invention it protects becomes part of the public domain. This means anyone, including other patent applicants, can make, use, sell, or import the invention without needing the patent owner’s permission.
Q3: Can an expired patent be revived?
Yes, an expired patent can sometimes be revived. This usually happens if the patent was not maintained due to unintentional non-payment of maintenance fees. The patent owner must submit a petition for revival to the patent office and pay a fee to reinstate their patent rights.
Q4: What is the typical lifespan of a utility patent?
The typical lifespan of utility patents, once granted, is 20 years from the earliest filing date. However, this assumes that all maintenance fees are paid on time by the patent owners. This is particularly important for utility patents filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Q5: Does a design patent require maintenance fees?
No, unlike utility patents, design patents do not require the payment of maintenance fees by the patent owners. Once the patent is granted, design patents have a term of 15 years from the date of grant.
Q6: How long does a plant patent last?
A plant patent lasts for 20 years from the date the patent application is filed and does not require the payment of maintenance fees. Just like other patents, once a plant patent is granted, the patent owner enjoys exclusive rights for the term of the patent.