The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) was established in 1790. According to Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution, it “promote[s] the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” The USPTO handles trademarks, patents, and service marks. It is part of the United States Department of Commerce, and often acts as a consulting body when issues of intellectual property arise.
The USPTO maintains a staff of over 7,000 individuals to handle paperwork and inspection of applications. 2,000 staff members act as examining staff, carefully scrutinizing applications to make sure that they are for unique scientific inventions. Examining staff also determine what a company can trademark, and often perform months of research before approving an application. Other staff members handle administrative duties, including maintenance of a massive historical and scientific library consisting of paperwork pertaining to every patented and trademarked item in the United States.
Filing paperwork with the USPTO allows a company or individual exclusive rights to the piece of intellectual property which is registered. Usually these rights only apply for a specific term, after which the exclusive protections expire. For this reason, companies are very careful about when they file patents for new inventions, to ensure that they get maximum profits. The USPTO also charges fees for examining potential patents and trademarks, using these fees to sustain the organization.
A patent is granted by the USPTO to someone who invents a new scientific process or device, as well as to people who breed unique plants, or create unique manufacturing designs. In order for a patent to be approved, it must be proven to be a unique and original piece of work. For twenty years after a patent is filed, other individuals or companies cannot manufacture, use, or sell the invention without the specific approval of the inventor.
A trademark is a logo, symbol, phrase, or design associated with a particular company or merchant. Companies who choose to register with the USPTO file paperwork showing how the trademark is used, and examining staff determine whether or not the design conflicts with an already registered trademark. If the trademark is granted Federal registration, the company may use the “R” symbol to indicate that it is registered. A service mark is a type of trademark used specifically in reference to services.
Because the process for registering a trademark or patent can be quite complex, most people use lawyers to assist them. In addition, the fees can be quite substantial, with patent registration and maintenance for some inventions costing as much as 4,000 US Dollars over the life of the patent. The USPTO refers individuals who are seeking copyright protection to the United States Library of Congress, which also maintains an impressive library of items.