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patents

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What are patents, and how do they work?

The patentability of inventions under U.S. law is determined by the Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in the Department of Commerce. A patent application is judged on four criteria. The invention must be “useful” in a practical sense (the inventor must identify some useful purpose for it), “novel” (i.e., not known or used before the filing), and “nonobvious” (i.e., not an improvement easily made by someone trained in the relevant area). The invention also must be described in sufficient detail to enable one skilled in the field to use it for the stated purpose (sometimes called the “enablement” criterion).

In general, raw products of nature are not patentable. DNA products usually become patentable when they have been isolated, purified, or modified to produce a unique form not found in nature.

The USPTO has 3 years to issue a patent. In Europe, the timeframe is 18 months. The USPTO is adopting a similar system. Patents are good for 20 years from filing date.

In the United States, patent priority is based on the “first to invent” principle: whoever made the invention first (and can prove it) is awarded property rights for the 20-year period. Inventors have a one-year grace period to file after they publish. All other countries except the Philippines, however, follow a “first inventor to file” rule in establishing priority when granting patents.