The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

On this bike ride I travelled out to the campus of The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), located in nearby Alexandria, Virginia.  Bordered by Duke Street to the North, Eisenhower Avenue to the South, John Carlyle Street to the East and Elizabeth Lane to the West, its official address is listed as 600 Dulany Street (MAP).  Developed in 2006 to consolidate employees and resources from the dozen and a half different buildings it had been occupying, the USPTO main campus is comprised of eleven buildings.  The modern, city-like development is anchored by the East and West Madison Buildings, and surrounded by ground floor retail and high-rise residential buildings.

The USPTO is an agency withini the Department of Commerce that issues patents to inventors and businesses for their inventions, and trademark registration for product and intellectual property identification.  Patents and trademarks, as well as copyrights, are all distinctly different issues legally.  A patent is granted for an invention, process, device or method that is deemed both new and useful.  The patent guards the product from being able to be legally copied by others.  Trademarks protect slogans, phrases and trade names.  And copyrights pertain to original expressions, ideas, books, videos and films, photographs or other original works.  Copyrights are granted by the U.S. Copyright Office, which is a department of The Library of Congress.

The USPTO is unique among Federal agencies because it the only one that does not receive any money from the American taxpayer.  Instead, the USPTO operates like a business and receives all of its funding from its users by charging fees projected to cover the costs of performing the services it provides.  This is possible because although the application, legal and other costs involved in the 13-step patent submission process may be high, the value of a patent once it’s obtained can often be much higher.   A recent study by the Brookings Institute determined that the average patent is worth over $500,000, and even single patents from relatively unknown companies can sometimes sell for a millions of dollars.  However, despite the costs of obtaining a patent and its value once obtained, approximately 16 percent of patents are allowed to expire after just four years because the owners refuse to pay a relatively nominal maintenance fee.

In addition to being potentially costly, obtaining a patent can also be a drawn out, time-consuming process as well.  The latest statistical figures available indicate that there are well over a million applications currently pending with the USPTO, and over a thousand more are added to the backlog every day. The result is that it now takes an average of two to three years for an applicant to secure a patent.

Interestingly, Abraham Lincoln is the only American president to have been issued a patent, at least so far.  Issued in 1849, (U.S. Patent No. 6,469), he was granted a patent for a device he invented for lifting boats over shoals.  It was also President Lincoln who once said, “The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”

While it’s true that the patent system has encouraged genius and innovation, it has also resulted in patents for a number of inane and impractical inventions as well.  One example is a patent for a “Banana Suitcase” (U.S. Patent No. 6612440), which was issued in 2003 for a protective device for storing and transporting a banana.  Another example of an absurd patent issued by the USPTO is a patent granted in 1995 for a “Method of exercising a cat” (U.S. Patent No. 5,443,036), which covers having a cat chase the dot created by the beam of light from a laser pointer.  Yet another example would be a patent for a “Hiccup Treatment” (U.S. Patent No. 7062320), which was issued in 2003 for a device made to shock the hiccups out of a person with a friendly jolt of electricity.  A patent was also issued in 2005 for a “Wind-Harnessing Bike” (U.S. Patent No. 6932368), a design in which a sail is adapted to fit on the rear of the bicycle above its rear wheel and is secured to the bicycle seat, which when connected to the bicycle harnesses wind to drive the vehicle and rider forward.  Actually, that last one doesn’t sound to me like such a bad idea.

If you have an idea for invention that you think is worth patenting, you may want to check first to see if there is already a similar patent.  The easiest way to do this is to use Google’s Patent Search.  This search engine can also be fun for just browsing and wasting time.

PatentTrademarkOffice02     PatentTrademarkOffice04     PatentTrademarkOffice03

PatentTrademarkOffice05     PatentTrademarkOffice06     PatentTrademarkOffice07

BananaSuitcase01    MethodOfExercisingCat01     HiccupTreatment01     WindHarnessingBike01

  1. Another good report. You should check this place out in the evening if you haven’t already. All those glass pillars are illuminated from inside with shifting colors of light. And a couple blocks away there is a pretty interesting fountain with colored lights.


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