The Gravitas of Trademarks & Patents

The Gravitas of Trademark & Patent

So, how did Isaac Newton discover his theory of gravity? An apple fell on his head and the idea struck him – not just literally. Correct? … Maybe?… Maybe not. But let’s hypothetically assume that another scientist called Mr. B realized the validity of this new theory Newton was propounding. He also realized that Newton was taking it for granted that his theory wouldn’t be stolen. So, that’s exactly what he does – he steals the idea – and decides to patent it, while simultaneously trademarking the name – “Newton’s theory of gravity”.  Guess what happens? …

Patents & Trademarks

… since a theory isn’t an invention, the patent office kicks out Mr. B. A patent is defined as a – “license conferring sole right for a set period, to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention”. In other words – “Scientific theories, laws of nature, and other abstract ideas in themselves are not eligible for patent protection”.

A trademark on the other hand is defined as “a symbol, word, or words legally registered to represent a company or a product”. Thus, the trademark department is a tad friendlier with Mr. B, allowing him to trademark the words “Newton’s theory of gravity”, since “the names of people, companies, business logos, particular sounds and symbols, can all be trademarked”. And now the real Newton can’t call his theory of gravity – “Newton’s Theory of Gravity”. This leaves him with no choice but to call his theory of gravity – “Isaac’s Theory of Gravity” instead.

To Patent or to Trademark

Now there are two similar theories of gravity, with two different trademarked names. Both theorists are promoting the same idea under their own trademarked names, respectively. So, to tip the scales in his favour, using his three laws of motion – Newton invents the world’s first Frisbee… (which would have otherwise been invented only in the 1950s). He defines the device as being able to defy gravity if thrown correctly, and he gives it a boring name – the Pluto Platter. In the immortal words of Steve Jobs (who doesn’t exist yet in this hypothetical history) – “boy have patented it!”, since you can patent original inventions.  He even imprints each Pluto Platter with the symbol of a bitten apple. He trademarks that symbol, so that it reminds people what inspired the theory that inspired the device. Just like that, people start believing again that Newton is indeed the one who invented gravity.

The Three types of Patents

Mr. B who immediately tries to copy the device is confronted with a ‘Utility Patent’. Utility Patent is a patent for a product that has a specific, clearly-defined benefit to society. However, that’s when he learns what a design patent is. A ‘Design Patent’ allows you to patent “an invention you have for a new, improved design on an existing product or process that doesn’t affect the function of the original product”. Discovering this Mr. B decides to replicate Newton’s invention – with a few new add-ons, which he then decides to apply for a ‘Design Patent’. However, Newton has calculated all viable and functional design variations of the ‘Pluto Platter’, and has acquired design patents for all of them.

Mr. B alternatively finds that there is also a ‘Plant Patent’, which is applicable if you develop a new asexually-reproductive variety of plant, which is completely useless in this case… except that it encourages Mr. B to become a horticulturist instead.

Moral of the story – “If you have invented something that has some serious gravity to it – patent it if you can. If you’ve discovered something that people will gravitate to – trademark it so that you’re remembered for it”

Note: this is for the duration that your trademark and patent lasts, which is probably not more than 20 years

So, when exactly should you protect your IP (Intellectual Property)?

Shot and obvious answer: Only when you’re completely sure about your invention.

Because as easy as this hypothetical article makes it sound, protecting your IP can be pretty expensive in actuality. But then what if somebody else thinks of your brilliant idea (as it commonly occurs now in our globalized world) and finds that the idea/invention is open to be patented? That’s why we have the long answer –

Try ‘Provisional Patents’ where applicant gets 12 months to fully develop the IP and discover its market potential. This allows you to test your IP by claiming it to be ‘patent pending’, and share it with possible business partners and other individuals whose service or advice you may require, without fearing your unique idea being stolen. Filing a provisional patent is considerably cheaper as it isn’t really a patent, more like a place-holder for you to file a full-blown utility patent, when you’re ready or when the provisional period has passed.

Also, you have to smartly know when and what to trademark, before even beginning your testing period. Your testing period is essentially your first impression. If your testing is successful – then whatever name or symbol you identify your product by, tends to become synonymous with the invention itself. Unlike your IP itself which will keep evolving, you don’t necessarily want your product’s identity and name to change as much. The changes could confuse your target audience. However, there will always be the anomalous case where your target audience will choose to identify your invention with a name of their choosing. For example – the Frisbee was initially called the Pluto Platter, until college kids popularly started calling it a Frisbee. So, trademark wisely.

The Funny Truth

So, the utility of patents and trademarks is not to just prevent the theft of your IP. It is to defend against others that might honestly also think of your idea or discover what you have – and turn it into their intellectual property. After all, in a world we haven’t invented – we humans will always be uncertain of being original… unless of course a court of law tells us that we legally are.

Note – For all those that didn’t like my hypothetical Newton example, as apology here’s a funny comic (Source).

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