Why do patents expire?

Patents only last a certain number of years. Why doesn’t the patent holder get the right to the invention forever, or at least for the rest of his life? If a corporation holds a patent I don’t see why the corporation shouldn’t be able to control the patent as long as it’s in business.

I wonder the same about copyrights, too.

They are trying to balance encouraging the development of new ideas with the free exchange of new ideas.

Then why would an old invention hinder someone from creating “new ideas” and new inventions?

It helps to look at the principles behind patents. Paten’t law doesnt recognize a natural, permanent right to the fruits of your ideas. Rather, a patent is a deal that society makes with individuals. Society offers a protected period in which to develop an idea commercially. In return, individuals are encouraged to make the investment in new ideas and to release them publicly where society can benefit from them (and others can build on them).

In any deal, you only offer what you need to in order to make the deal work. Experience says that a lifetime patent is more than we need to offer to get most individuals to enter into the deal. Moreover, lifetime patents would probably be counterproductive to the ultimate goal of bringing the ideas into the broader society.

Once an idea has been had, it is a bad thing for society to prevent anyone from using it since the cost to society of using the idea is zero. It is a pure public good in economists’ jargon.

Expiring patents are an attempt to balance this against incentives to produce and commercialise ideas.

Those who believe that any benefits to society ought not trump the claim of the creator to income flowing from ideas might be less keen on patent expiration.

Can you imagine if someone held a permanent patent on fire, or the wheel?

Because it is often impossible to implement the new inventions that are built on the old without also using the old ones.

Patents give the inventor the right to license the patent, but also to prevent someone else from using it.

Patents are essentially an incentive to get good ideas out into public, where they are easily available to all. The incentive is a set period during which the patentee can profit from sole possession of the idea (which he may license out). In Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the “Boss”, Hank Morgan, recognizes this, and one of the first things he does is establish a patent office. “A country without a Patent Office can’t make any progress,” he observers, “It can only crawl sideways, like a crab.”

Without even getting this extreme, imagine the cost of an automobile if one still had to obtain patent rights to an enormous number of early 20th century patents on such things as electric starters. Just the legal costs of sorting out the rights would be staggering.

As a practical matter, patent rights into perpetuity might eventually make manufacture and sale of complex objects built on many generations of development nigh unto impossible.

I’m sorry, but I read patents and thought patients and had several good replies in mind.

I’m thankfull they do expire otherwise the headache would be endless.

I have a freind who is a patent lawyer for Gillette. Gillette has a research department that developes new ways to deal with unwanted facial or body hair. The stuff they come up with is patented and never used. Disposable razors are huge profit for the company, they don’t want any new technology to replace them.
Her job is to prevent other companies from every being able to successfully launch a new technology product by arguing Gillette already holds the patent for it or that their new product couldn’t have been developed without using Gilletes research methods.

Temporary stopgap. Upon expiration of the patents, competitors would be free to exploit Gillette’s research.

I’ve got four patents. If any of youse guys want to stop unwanted reflections for glass surfaces *I won’t let you use my patent!


(Actually, I can’t do that. As with many folks in R&D, the company I was working at gets the patent rights. Bummer. Although I susopect there’s not a huge market for my solution, anyway.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve seen a huge number of laser patents for devices that really won’t work, or are marginal at best, or are a rotten way of doing something that we can already do better a different way. Just because something’s patented doesn’t mean it’s terrifically useful.

But can still remain an effective deterrent. Once the patents expire, anybody can market the New Improved Shaver. But without patent protection themselves, many companies avoid initiating a new product line since someone else might undercut them. Companies hate it when they spend millions marketing a new product and a clone appears and siphons off their market share.

GOK. :slight_smile:

Why do we say that the first person to think of an invention gets it all to his/herself? It’s a free country, ain’t it? As others have said, it’s a societal bargain. We give people a monopoly for a limited period to encourage R&D. In olden days, it was done by monarchs.

BTW, patent and copyright are different in a fundamental way. Copyright covers only the particular expression (book, song, etc.). Subject to fair use and a few other exceptions, no one else can copy, sell or perform the work without the author’s consent. Ideas, however, can’t be copyrighted. You can’t copyright The Best Friggin’ Burger In The World. Only the particular words used in your recipe are protected. Someone else can write a similar recipe that produces the exact same burger without violating your copyright. Patent, by contrast, protects the burger. No one else can make that burger for the duration of the patent. How different someone else’s burger has to be without infringing your patent is one of those things people fight over all the time.

Note: TBFBITW would not be patentable - it’s not original enough - but you get the idea.

I understand the use of a patent to block the marketing of a similar product, but research methods? I’m not sure how you’d patent that, and most likely a new method would be a trade secret - which can be independently invented.

Lucky for Gillette that they’re not a monopoly.

Did you get anything for them? In Bell Labs, in the old days, it was considered just a part of the job. You got a nice plaque for your first one, but just a piece of paper in a folder after that. I actually got some money for my third and fourth at my current company.
If anyone ever wanted to use any of mine, I’d be shocked.

I got a clean, crisp dollar bill for each patent.

No, in retrospect, my boss just pulled old used ones out of his wallet. New ones would at least have a sense of ceremony to it. I didn’t even hear about it from him when the patents came through – I had to learn from the vultures who sell you framed copies of your front page and stuff like that.

Oh, well, at least one of them is made out in my name alone. In these days of committee invention, that’s a kick.

A buck more than I got!

Yeah, that’s a peeve of mine in my current company. In Bell Labs patents were handed out at center meetings with some degree of ceremony - lots of people got patents, so not all that much, but something. Here I found out the same way as you. They do pay for a nice wooden plaque, which showed up in the mail. The check got direct deposited. Besides that, nothing.

They’re not paying any more either, so I’m not going to even try to get anything patented