Can Ideas be Patented?
Anything can be patented if the patent application disclosure meets the requirements of 35 U.S.C. §101 (patentable subject matter), §102 (not anticipated by the prior art), §103 (is not obvious in view of the prior art) and §112 (adequately described such that one skilled in the art can make and use the invention). The question is whether an idea or a concept can meet these requirements.
The on-line dictionary, www. thefreedictionary.com, defines the terms “idea” and “concept” as follows:
Idea: something such as a thought or conception that potentially or actually exists in the mind as a product of metal activity.
Concept: a general idea derived or inferred from specific instances or occurrences; something formed in the mind; a thought or notion.
Generally speaking an idea or a concept does not usually mean that an operational model of the invention has been fully conceived in someone’s mind. It is more of a “big picture”, often lacking the comprehensive details. For example, the thought of creating a handheld device that translates one language into another is an idea or concept. Technically, it cannot be performed without additional information such as a description of the program that translates one language into another as well as the electronic components and circuitry that allows this to be communicated to the user. The additional detail that allows one skilled in the art to be able to make and use the translation device can convert this idea into a patentable invention.
Patent applications filed on an idea or concept such as the translation device, are often rejected by the USPTO for failing to adequately describe the invention under 35 USC §112. However, that said, it does not mean that patent applications lacking a proper disclosure have not been patented. Fortunately, these patents are usually revoked when challenged because they lack an adequate teaching to support the claims.
While one may want to secure rights to an idea, it is important to remember the purpose of a patent. In the United States, our government permits the holder of a patent, the right to exploit that technology by excluding others from making and using the claimed invention for a term of years; in essence, granting a monopoly. This right is given in exchange for the patent holder agreeing to relinquish the invention to the public at the end of the term. The provisions of 35 USC §112 assure that this right is adequately conveyed. Because of this, there is little or no “middle ground” to allow an application disclosing merely an idea or concept to be patented.