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patent, in law, governmental grant of some privilege, property, or authority. Today patent refers to the granting to the inventor of a useful product or process the privilege to exclude others from making that invention. Patent is also the term for the conveyance of public lands to an individual. Patents developed out of the medieval institution of allowing monopolistic control over useful goods in order to encourage their sale and distribution; the authority was contained in letters patent (meaning open, i.e., public). The corrupt sale of such privileges and the consequent increase in the price of necessities led in England to the Statute of Monopolies (1623), which abolished all monopolies except those of inventors in their inventions.

The U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8) authorizes Congress to enact patent legislation; the first such law was enacted Apr. 10, 1790. In 1836, Congress created the U.S. Patent Office (now the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office) and established the basic principles of American patent law. Comprehensive revision of that law occurred in 1870 and in 1952. In the United States any process or device may be patented if it is novel and useful and if plans and a working model are supplied. In all countries patents are valid for a limited term only (17 years in the United States); this limit ordinarily secures a profit to the inventor for a reasonable period yet will not permanently deprive the public of the free use of the invention.

The American law was designed to encourage the maximum inventiveness. Unlike many European countries where the rights to patents are limited so as to make innovations in industry easier, the United States does not require the patentee to permit the use of the invention on pain of losing the patent. Although there have been many independent inventors in the United States, most important patents today are the property of large corporations capable of exploiting them.

Injurious practices, such as withholding beneficial patents that might make obsolete some widely used product or process, have developed. Other practices, such as acquiring all patents in a given field and granting manufacturing licenses only to firms that promise to refrain from effective competition, have been repeatedly attacked by the federal government under the antitrust laws (see trust). Difficulties have also developed in the effective and equitable regulation of patents taken out by foreigners.


See F. L. Vaughan, The United States Patent System: Legal and Economic Conflicts in American Patent History (1956); B. W. Bugbee, Genesis of American Patent and Copyright Law (1967); C. MacLeod, Inventing the Industrial Revolution (1989).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(1) A document that certifies state recognition of a new technical solution to a problem, according it the status of an invention, and secures exclusive rights to the invention for the person to whom it is issued (the patentee). The patent is issued by a state patent office to the inventor or his successor in interest. The right to an invention developed on the job usually belongs to the entrepreneur. A patent is granted on the basis of an application that is reviewed in accordance with the procedure established by the laws of the particular country and is valid in the country where it was issued. The effective periods of patents are also established by national legislation. As a rule, a patent is valid for 15 to 20 years, and some countries extend patents for longer periods. A patent fee is collected when the patent is issued. A patent may be disputed and invalidated on grounds and in the manner established by national legislation.

The exclusive right of the patentee gives him a monopoly on applications of the invention. If the invention is used without authorization, the patentee may bring suit in court to obtain compensation for damages or to prohibit acts related to infringement of the patent. The patentee has the right to transfer his interest in the invention and to issue authorizations (licenses) to other persons to use the patented invention. The laws of some countries place certain restrictions on the rights of patentees, making the transfer of patents or the issuance of licenses mandatory under certain circumstances.

In the USSR the patent is one of two forms of legal protection of rights to inventions and is normally used only by foreigners. The scope of the patentee’s rights is determined with due regard for laws pertaining to the Soviet state’s exclusive ownership of the means of production and for rules concerning the state monopoly on foreign trade. The second and more common form of protection of the rights to an invention is the author’s certificate. Most other socialist countries have established similar systems.

In bourgeois countries, where the use of a new invention makes it possible to extract greater profit, the patent is an important weapon in the competitive struggle. Inasmuch as large capitalist enterprises are in a position to take advantage of inventions, they ordinarily buy up patents on all inventions that interest them. There have been cases where large monopolies have “frozen” a patent—that is, they have bought a patent but have not used the invention—in order to prevent the invention from being used by competitors.

In many countries patents are also issued for certain other forms of industrial property, such as models or designs of new products.

(2) A document that affirms the right to engage in some enterprise, such as the selling or buying of goods.

(3) In the Middle Ages in Western Europe, a document giving the right to hold certain positions, such as the rank of officer, and titles, such as that of peer or count.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


(industrial engineering)
A certificate of grant by a government of an exclusive right with respect to an invention for a limited period of time. Also known as letters patent.
Open; exposed.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Common designation for letters patent, which is a certificate of grant by a government of an exclusive right with respect to an invention for a limited period of time. A United States patent confers the right to exclude others from making, using, or selling the patented subject matter in the United States and its territories. Portions of those rights deriving naturally from it may be licensed separately, as the rights to use, to make, to have made, and to lease. Any violation of this right is an infringement.

An essential substantive condition which must be satisfied before a patent will be granted is the presence of patentable invention or discovery. To be patentable, an invention or discovery must relate to a prescribed category of contribution, such as process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, plant, or design. In the United States there are different classes of patents for different members of these categories.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Engineering. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


a. a government grant to an inventor assuring him the sole right to make, use, and sell his invention for a limited period
b. a document conveying such a grant
2. an invention, privilege, etc., protected by a patent
a. an official document granting a right
b. any right granted by such a document
4. in the US
a. a grant by the government of title to public lands
b. the instrument by which such title is granted
c. the land so granted
5. open or available for inspection (esp in the phrases letters patent, patent writ)
6. concerning protection, appointment, etc., of or by a patent or patents
7. (esp of a bodily passage or duct) being open or unobstructed
8. Biology spreading out widely
9. (of plate glass) ground and polished on both sides
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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