Crash course on patents: Who can get a patent

Normally, a person who made an invention is entitled to a patent (assuming the invention itself qualifies, of course). There are several special circumstances however. For example, if the inventor works for a company, it may be the company is entitled instead. Or perhaps the inventor has agreed in a contract to assign his rights to someone else.

In most countries, if two people independently make the same invention, the first one to file a patent application gets the patent. The USA has a "first-to-invent" system, in which the first inventor gets the patent even if he filed an application later. It is quite difficult to prove earlier inventorship though.

The inventor or the company employing the inventor

When someone makes an invention, and does so as an employee of a company, usually the company owns the right to apply for a patent. The exception once again is the United States, where only natural persons may apply for a patent. In the USA, the employee will typically have a clause in his employment contract stating that he assigns all his patent rights to the company. The filing is then done on behalf of the employee, but the rights immediately go to the company.

Most countries do require that the employee's activities are in some way related to the invention. If the janitor invents a new medicine, his company will not automatically own the patent rights to that medicine. However, if a researcher in a medical company invents the same medicine, his company does.

The company may be required to pay the inventor a compensation, unless his salary is deemed adequate for an inventor.

In Germany, if a company decides it does not want to apply for a patent on an invention one of its employees invented, the employee has the right to apply for the patent himself.

The first to invent or the first to file

Most countries in the world follow the so-called 'first to file' principle. That is, the first person who files a patent application for an invention is the one entitled to the patent, even if someone else invented it first but got to the patent office later. In the United States the 'first to invent' principle is used, and the earlier inventor would theoretically be able to get the earlier filed application moved aside. However, in practice it is difficult to prove that you made the invention earlier than someone else, so almost all of the time, the first to file is also deemed the first to invent.

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