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Learning the lingo of patents and trademarks

The Smithsonian and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) are hosting an Innovation Festival at the museum on September 26 and 27. The Festival will showcase cutting-edge inventions, including hands-on activities, demonstrations, and conversations with the inventors themselves. I spoke with Elizabeth Dougherty, the Director of Inventor Education, Outreach, and Recognition in the Office of Innovation Development at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Here, she shares some insights about the patent process and who can be an inventor (hint: anyone can!).

First, let's talk about the basics: what is a patent and what is a trademark?

Patents and trademarks are both forms of intellectual property rights that give their owners legal advantages in the marketplace. We say "intellectual property" because we are talking about creations of the mind and the effort it takes to turn ideas into reality. Patents are issued for inventions, which can encompass any form of human technology, from chemical compositions to electronics and software. They can also cover processes, designs, and even asexually reproduced plants.

Dr. Charles Drew (left), inventor of the blood bank, and a medical team. He received a patent for his method of preserving blood, which helped save thousands of lives during World War II.

A patent allows its holder to exclude others from making, selling, using, importing, or offering the invention for sale for a limited amount of time (usually 20 years). In return, the inventor discloses the inner workings of the invention so that the world can learn from it and perhaps even improve it.

Examples of trademarks from the museum’s collections: Nike’s “Just Do It” and the swoosh are both trademarked; so is Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders.

Trademarks are symbols, logos, words, or other distinct identifying marks of a brand, product, or service. Trademarks prevent confusion in the marketplace and help consumers identify their trusted or preferred brands, thus engendering goodwill and customer loyalty.

When did trademarks come to be?

The earliest forms of trademarks predate recorded history. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of some kind of trademarking in nearly every civilization. Identifying the maker of, say, a pottery jar, or the owner of a livestock animal, was important to commerce even in ancient times. In the United States, trademarks did not become a federally governed intellectual property right until 1870, though every state had, since colonial times, some form of law or common law to protect genuine brands from imposters. The oldest still-in-use U.S. trademark, registration no. 11210, dates to 1884.

Is there anything that's commonly misunderstood about the patent process?

Perhaps one common misconception is that you can patent an idea. While ideas can be incredibly powerful and unique, they are not necessarily "inventions" until they reach a certain level of development, which often requires creating prototypes and testing. A patent application must describe an invention in such detail that it could be made and used by someone who has normal skill in the technological area of the invention. We call that "reduction to practice" at the USPTO, and it means you've got an invention and not just an idea!

Thomas Edison’s 1873 model of an improved stock ticker for the Gold & Stock Telegraph Company. Patent models, which were included in the application process at Thomas Jefferson’s insistence, are no longer required.

What makes an invention successful? Just because you get a patent doesn't mean your creation is successful, right?

Success is tricky to define. An invention can be effective at solving the problem it was intended to fix, but it might never be commercially successful. At the same time, there are plenty of inventions that sell well but don’t succeed at solving problems. But evaluating this is not the USPTO's role. Patent examiners ensure that an invention meets the requirements for a patent under the law. At the most basic level, this means the invention must not have existed before and must not be an obvious improvement to something that already exists.

What's something you think kids, parents, and educators would be interested to know about the patent process or USPTO?

Perhaps one of the coolest things about U.S. patents is that, since inception, anyone has been able to apply and receive one. It has never mattered how old you are, what country you are from, the color of your skin, your gender, etc. The first Patent Act said patents shall be granted to "he, she, or they" and that was all. In fact, the youngest known U.S. patent holder, Sydney Dittman, was just four years old when she received a patent for a suction cup drawer opener (and only two when she applied for the patent). You can find out more interesting facts about child inventors at our USPTO kids page.

Inventors of all ages at work in the museum's Spark!Lab, which will be open during the Innovation Festival

This weekend at the Innovation Festival, visitors will have the unique opportunity to talk to inventors directly and pick their brains about what it's like to create something new. What are some good questions to ask inventors?

Almost every invention starts with a problem that an inventor realized needed solving. Inventors are often very enthusiastic to talk about this. A simple "So how did you come up with your invention?" or "What problem does your invention solve?" is really the surest way to get an interesting story. Also, asking inventors what they would have been doing if they didn't invent whatever it is they invented can elicit interesting responses and stories.

What is most exciting about the Innovation Festival?

The curiosity and excitement on the faces of attendees. The collaboration between the USPTO and the Smithsonian provides unique opportunities to promote innovation and share with the public intellectual property's role in the success of inventors, innovators, companies and the nation in general. There's something for everyone!

Caitlin Kearney is a new media assistant. She is a student in the Museum Studies program at The George Washington University. She will be tweeting about Innovation Festival with the hashtag #InnovationSI. Follow the hashtag and @SI_Invention for fun facts and photos from the festival. 

*Update* Check out this recap to learn more about the neat inventions that were presented at the Innovation Festival.