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Understanding how long a patent lasts may provide you the ability to improve on someone else’s idea or retain ownership of your own. Find out more.

One of the most prevalent objections leveled against the patent system is that patents endure much too long, restricting innovation and inhibiting research and development. Do they, however? A design patent is generally valid for 14 years from the date it is granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). A utility patent may theoretically provide protection for up to 20 years, but the actual length of each patent is governed by various variables that have the ability to significantly restrict its lifespan.

Utility Patent Lifetime

The payment of maintenance fees is the most important factor in deciding how long a utility patent will survive. Maintenance costs must be paid for the first time 3.5 years after the patent is awarded, and then again at the 7.5- and 11.5-year milestones. The costs themselves are steep: $400, $900, and $1,850 for a micro company, respectively. Certain utility patents granted to bigger corporations need a substantially greater expenditure, reaching more than $12,000. It should be noted that the costs are subject to change. Although a utility patent has a maximum life of 20 years, it might expire considerably sooner if the maintenance payments are not paid.

Special Situations

Some factors may also influence the term of a patent. The most significant of them is a terminal disclaimer, which applies when you submit a second invention that is extremely similar to a previously filed patent. Since the earlier patent made elements of the innovation apparent (well-known and understood), the second patent may have certain restrictions. The USPTO may ask you to submit a terminal disclaimer, which is a contract that restricts the scope of the second patent. If a terminal disclaimer is filed, the patent will expire at the same time as the original patent. Moreover, after filing a terminal disclaimer, a patent may be granted a duration adjustment if the original patent cited by the disclaimer has previously been granted a duration adjustment.

Lastly, patents may occasionally be extended under 35 U.S.C. 156, which may come into play if you were unable to commercially sell your invention due to awaiting governmental clearance. In general, this only applies if you hold a patent for human or animal medications, food or color additives, medical equipment, or other FDA- or government-regulated items.

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