Many people are under the impression that once a patent is issued it will last forever. This is not the case. In fact, patents don’t last that long and their term can be affected by where they are issued and also the kind of patent that is applied for. In the United States, for instance, any utility patent that was issued after June 8th 1985 expires after 20 years. A design patent expires after 14 years. After the expiry of a patent the holder no longer owns the technology or intellectual property that was enforced by the patent. Anyone out there is now free to use it to design their own products.
Exceptions to the Patent Term
It is important to note that there are exceptions. According to Wikipedia, because of significant backlog of pending applications at the USPTO, the majority of newly issued patents receive some adjustment that extends the term for a period longer than 20 years. This simply means that because it takes so long to issue patents it makes sense that they be issued extensions to compensate for the time lost between when they are filed and when they are issued. People file patents all the time. There can be thousands of unprocessed patents at any one time. The patent office is not able to asses all these patents on time and that is why sometimes it can take years to get a patent granted. The extensions are in a bid to compensate patent owners for these lost years.
There are other exceptions too. Some pharmaceutical products are issued patent extensions because of how long it takes the government to test them. The testing body, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is equally overloaded when it comes to testing pharmaceuticals. It can sometimes take more than 7 years to get drug approval. In order to recompense this lost time the patent office will seek an extension. Patents can only be extended through a special act of Congress, which, again, can be a time consuming process.
If you want to seek protection for your idea you should look into getting either a Copyright, which lasts for 100 years, or a Trademark, which lasts forever. The problem with these is that they are limited in the kind of protection they offer. A Trademark is used to distinguish a source of goods while a Copyright is solely used to protect authorship of things such as music and art. This means that for creators of technologies, patents are their only option. If you are worried about making the most from your patent you should look into licensing. This allows you to have licensees who maximize your returns without infringing on your patent. Your job, as patent owner, is to oversee the licensees and ensure that they are producing according to the original concept.
It is also important to mention that patents are not cheap to obtain. Once you develop an idea you will need to be quite a bit of money to get it patented. That said, the payoff comes later when you are the only one legally able to produce your idea.