What’s a patent?

What’s a patent?

Ideas aren’t protected under copyright law.

However, ideas can be protected under contracts intended to keep them confidential and prevent counterfeiting, among other purposes.

Example: A draft script for a TV series could be protected under a contract between the creator and the producers.

A patent is a type of contract used to protect inventors and help them be better positioned in the market so they can capitalize on their concept.


Protection for the concepts behind inventions

Patents are one of the branches of intellectual property.

A patent protects the concept underpinning an invention. Thanks to patent registration, no one other than the inventor of X is allowed to patent or develop the idea behind that invention.

It’s a form of exclusivity contract for the idea.

A patent issued for an invention is equivalent to a contract between the government and the inventor. Once the patent has been issued, it gives the inventor an absolute monopoly over manufacturing, selling and capitalizing on their invention throughout the country, together with the right to take legal action in court against anyone infringing the patent. In consideration for that temporary monopoly, the inventor must disclose a complete description of their invention so the general public can immediately benefit from it, reproduce it and then make use of it however they want after the patent expires. [Translation]

— Gabrielle Moisan, Legal Counsel La protection des inventions – les brevets


Simply having an idea isn’t enough

To apply for a patent, you need proof of concept. In other words, something like a prototype, with precise measurements. You have to indicate the invention’s technical parameters and do tests in some cases.

The role of a patent agent is to evaluate the concept behind the invention and make sure the proposal is valid based on scientific criteria.


What’s an invention?

An invention is a process of the mind whose purpose is to provide a concrete solution that meets a need or solves a problem.

In the context of intellectual property, an invention meets a technical need.

It’s important to distinguish between an invention and a discovery. For example, if the properties of a natural material are observed for the first time, that’s a discovery rather than an invention.


Criteria for an invention

To register a patent — in other words, to patent the concept behind an invention — the invention must meet three criteria:

New: First in the world

Useful: Functional and operative

Inventive: Showing ingenuity and not obvious to someone of average skill who works in the field of your invention

— Canadian Intellectual Property Office What is a patent?


Why are patents necessary?

Patents are a way to fuel creativity in a society.

By giving inventors monopolies on their creations for a specific time period, patents protect investments and allow inventors to profit financially from their creativity. This in turn provides an attractive incentive for research and development.

— Canadian Intellectual Property Office A Guide to Patents


Discretion is essential

Inventors have to keep their inventions secret in order to be able to patent them. That’s crucial because one of the conditions for approving a patent is that the idea hasn’t been disclosed.

That condition can be a real challenge for businesses and professionals attending conferences or trade shows. If you’re an inventor, the organizers of those kinds of events will likely want to know what you’re working on. But don’t be tempted to share details about your inventions; by being discreet, you can be sure you still have the right to file a patent application.


1 year to take action

After disclosing their invention concept, inventors have a one-year grace period before they’re no longer eligible to file a patent application for it.


What can be patented?

Many things can be patented in the industrial field: 

  • Processes
  • Machines
  • Manufactured items
  • Compositions of matter


What can’t be patented?

Some things can’t be patented, especially anything found in nature or arrangements that already exist somewhere in the world.

The same applies to inventions that raise moral or ethical issues. A good example is the case of the “OncoMouse,” a genetically modified mouse predisposed to the rapid development of cancerous tumours so it could be used in medical research.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the mouse was not patentable because is had not been “manufactured.”

When an invention is so different from other conventional inventions from an ethical standpoint, it is the government’s responsibility to decide whether a patent should be granted. This is a positive factor for democracy because the court admitted that it did not have the competency to decide such controversial issues of morality and ethics. [Translation]

— Richard Gold, McGill University law professor; remarks reported by Pauline Gravel Pas de brevet pour la souris transgénique Le Devoir, 2002


Utility patent vs. design patent

Utility patents are types of commercial or business patents that protect only the invention itself, not its look or appearance.

Design patents concern industrial design and are used to record and protect an invention’s esthetic aspects, especially to prevent counterfeiting (unauthorized reproductions).


Patent protection timeframe

In Canada, patents provide protection for 20 years from the date the patent application was filed.


Notable Quebec inventor Jean Saint-Germain

Quebec has had its share of successful inventors. Jean Saint-Germain designed a well-known baby bottle with a plastic liner that helped infants avoid swallowing air, which reduced gas and colic.

He supposedly experimented with his concept by poking holes in a balloon and a latex condom to see how milk would flow.


Patents granted for crazy inventions

There’s no lack of imagination among inventors. Many patents have been filed for inventions that don’t seem useful or original… including a stick for playing fetch with dogs.

The inventor Ross Eugene Long III was granted a patent in December 1999 for a stick that looks like a tree branch in every respect.

Apparatus for use as a toy by an animal

— Google Patents US Patent 6360693

Among other questionable patents, you can find a leash for a snake, a centrifugal seat to help women give birth and the Beerbrella to keep the sun off your beer!!

For a list of strange and unusual patents (including the animal toy), look here.



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