Patents: How the Right to Exclude Turns Innovation Into Success

How does an inventor, company or organization gain the most value from its innovations and new technologies?

Innovation is often cited as a "crucial determinant of competitiveness and national progress." For example, innovation has been shown to stimulate employment. The number of new patent applications filed has long been used as a rough measure of innovation. Most people believe "innovation will be more important than ever to the U.S. economy over the next 30 years."

Despite the recognized need for innovation, 2009 saw the first drop in the number of new patent applications filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in the past 13 years.

The decline in new applications has been replicated essentially worldwide and has been attributed to the recent global recession. Many experts are predicting a reversal to this trend in 2010. As economies emerge from the recession, those that have continued to innovate will thrive.

Patents play a key role in maximizing the value of your or your company's innovation. Patent protection is one critical way to protect the tremendous resources necessary for R&D and innovation. Whether in academia or industry, every engineer should understand the basic principles of patent law. Over the coming months, I will be blogging on various aspects of patent law to help you maximize the value of your innovations, including how to document your inventions and communicate with your technology transfer office or patent counsel to ensure your inventions obtain effective patent protection.

How does a patent protect and promote innovation?

A patent grants to the holder the right to exclude. This fundamental right is probably the most misunderstood aspect of patent law. Most people believe that a patent gives you the right to make, use or sell your invention. It does not. Instead, a patent grants the right to exclude others from making, using or selling the invention.

Assume you obtained a patent to a pencil with an eraser. You now have the right to exclude others from making, using or selling a pencil with an eraser.

Can you sell a pencil with an eraser? Not necessarily. Another individual might have a patent to a pencil, and with it, the right to exclude you from making, using, or selling a pencil, whether or not the pencil has an eraser.

A patent grants "the right to exclude" for a limited term in exchange for public disclosure of how to make and use the invention. Both the inventor and society benefit from this exchange. In the process, innovation is promoted. Indeed, "the Patent System added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 11, 1859).


  • Innovation = Progress.
  • Patents play a key role in promoting innovation.
  • Patents grant the right exclude, not the right to make, use, or sell.