The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention & Innovation
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration
MIND: Documenting Invention

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Patents and Legal Documents

Inventors who plan to patent their inventions usually conduct a patent search for what is known as “prior art” to make sure their ideas are not already patented and to check the state of the art in the field. As a result, an inventor's files will often contain numerous copies of other peoples' patents. These are important because they allow comparisons between the invention under study and existing devices and illuminate the most recent developments in the field. Related patents may also explain why an invention goes no further in development.

The patenting process itself is an asset in documenting an invention's development, since it mandates that the inventor spell out exactly what makes his or her invention "useful, novel, and non-obvious" and therefore worthy of being granted a patent.

Two central areas to patent litigation are validity and infringement. Litigation plays a central role in the United States patent system, but only a small percentage of patents are litigated. However, litigation produces a rich historical record that provides insight into the overall patenting process and reveals patent litigation strategies and decisions.

Last Update: 28 Dec 2010

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