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THIS IS AMERICA - October 14, 2002: Patents and Inventions - 2002-10-11


VOICE ONE:

An office of the American government has helped to protect the legal rights of inventors for two-hundred years. The United States Patent and Trademark Office gives inventors property rights to their inventions. I’m Mary Tillotson.

VOICE TWO:

And I’m Steve Ember. The Patent and Trademark Office is our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

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VOICE ONE:

Every week, thousands of people send their inventions to the United States Patent and Trademark Office near Washington, D-C. The Patent Office examines each invention. Those that are judged to be new and useful will receive a patent.

The term of a new patent is twenty years. During that time, the inventor controls the legal right to make, use or sell the invention in the United States. After twenty years, anyone can make or sell the invention.

VOICE TWO:

Patents protect inventors’ chances to make money from their creations. A patent gives both inventors and investors time to develop and market a product. Patents also provide a good way to share and spread technical information.

The Patent Office’s responsibilities also include trademarks. A trademark is anything that helps to identify the ownership of goods. It could be a name, sign or device. Trademark rights may be used to prevent others from using a similar mark. Yet, such rights may not prevent others from making the same goods or from selling the same goods under a clearly different mark.

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VOICE ONE:

Almost since its creation, the United States has been seen as a country of inventors. It is not surprising that the men who established the United States included patent protection in the Constitution. They wrote that Congress should support the progress of science by giving inventors all rights to their discoveries, for a limited time.

In seventeen-ninety, President George Washington signed into law the first Patent Act of the United States. Under the measure, inventors asked the Secretary of State to consider a request for a patent. Next, the Secretary would discuss the request with the Secretary of War and Attorney General. They would decide if the invention or discovery was useful and important. At that time, both the President and the Secretary of State signed patents.

VOICE TWO:

The first American patent for an invention was given in seventeen-ninety to Samuel Hopkins. Mister Hopkins’ invention was an improved way to make the chemical potash. As the number of patent requests grew, it became necessary to develop an organized process to deal with all the requests. The job of receiving and approving patents was given to a group of State Department employees in seventeen-ninety-three.

In eighteen-oh-two, a State Department official named William Thornton was appointed to serve as the first clerk. He was the only person responsible for receiving and recording patent requests and approving requests. His office became the first Patent Office.

Since then, more than six-million patents for inventions have been approved. They include Thomas Edison’s electric light, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Orville and Wilbur Wright’s flying machine.

VOICE ONE:

The United States Patent and Trademark Office has grown to fourteen agencies in the Department of Commerce. The agency occupies several buildings in Arlington, Virginia. It has more than five-thousand permanent employees.

The Patent and Trademark Office has one of the largest collections of scientific and technical knowledge in the world. Each year, the agency receives more than three-hundred-twenty-six-thousand requests for patents. It also gets two-hundred-thirty-two-thousand requests for trademarks.

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VOICE TWO:

Suppose you have an idea for an invention. How do you get a patent to protect your rights? The first step is to write your idea on a piece of paper. You must be sure no one else has invented a device just like yours. So you must examine hundreds of descriptions of similar devices that already have patents. This can be a big job and take a long time. Many inventors pay special patent lawyers to do this job.

The Patent and Trademark Office will examine your request once you know that the idea does not have a patent already. Because the agency gets so many requests, the examination process may last two or more years.

You do not have to show that your invention works to receive a patent. All you must show is that your invention is a new idea. For example, Thomas Edison is famous for inventing the electric light bulb. Yet the light bulb design for which he received a patent never worked.

VOICE ONE:

Sometimes, two or more inventors get the same idea at the same time. This happened with the telephone. One of the men was Alexander Graham Bell. The people who invested money in his project told him not to work on the telephone’s design. They did not believe they could earn any money from the invention. However, Mister Bell continued to work on the telephone. He arrived at the Patent Office only two hours before a competing inventor, Elisha Gray.

Mister Gray had developed exactly the same idea for a telephone. He, too, did not believe the invention would be very important. Yet he went to the Patent Office when he heard that Mister Bell was requesting a patent. He was too late. Alexander Graham Bell received the patent for inventing the telephone.

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VOICE TWO:

What kinds of inventions can receive patents? American law names many kinds, such as new machines, methods and products. New uses for, or improvements to, old inventions. And new, improved kinds of plants and animals.

An American patent protects an invention only in the United States. But you do not have to be an American citizen to receive a United States patent. Last year, nine of the ten companies that received the largest number of patents were foreign.

VOICE ONE:

Almost every nation in the world has a patent system of some kind to protect inventors. Most governments give a patent to an inventor who is the first to ask for it. Until recently, many countries honored an international treaty on patents. The treaty was signed more than one-hundred years ago.

In nineteen-ninety-five, the World Trade Organization was established. W-T-O member countries are required to provide patent protection for inventions, while permitting exceptions. Under W-T-O rules, patent protection has to last at least twenty years from the date the patent request was first made.

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VOICE TWO:

President Bush recently congratulated the United States Patent and Trademark Office on its two-hundredth anniversary. He said the agency has been an important influence in the nation’s development.

As the Patent Office enters its third century, it faces a number of issues. One is what to do with the growing number of patent requests awaiting consideration. Currently, the agency is slowly working its way through about four-hundred-thousand such requests.

One problem is a lack of money. The Patent and Trademark Office does not keep all of the money it collects. Over the past ten years, Congress has taken away more than seven-hundred-million dollars from the agency. The money is then spent on other government programs.

VOICE ONE:

Last year, the Bush administration appointed a former Congressman, James Rogan, as director of the Patent Office. Mister Rogan has proposed adding hundreds of new patent examiners to the agency. He also wants to reform the patent process.

His plan includes negotiating international agreements to create an electronic-based patent system. Mister Rogan wants to limit the duties of agency employees to just the examination and approval of patents and trademarks. He also wants inventors to ask private investigators to carry out patent searches.

The plan would increase the money that inventors and patent lawyers pay the Patent Office. However, critics say the increased costs would decrease investment in scientific research and development in new technologies. They also say the costs would stop some independent inventors and small companies from using the patent system.

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VOICE TWO:

This program was written by George Grow. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. I’m Steve Ember.

VOICE ONE:

And I’m Mary Tillotson. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

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