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Intellectual Property

Teaching Kids About Patents

Intellectual property, or IP, might seem like a tricky topic. For educators looking to provide students with basic IP knowledge, the subject can feel too unfamiliar and multifaceted to break down into simple, relatable concepts. The National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) is here to help.

At NIHF, we want creators of all ages to know their ideas have value and to be equipped with the knowledge they need to protect their rights. We also want educators to feel confident answering questions like, “What is a patent?” So we’ve put together this simple Q&A you can use to teach your students what they need to know about patents.


1. What Is a Patent?

When a person creates something new and useful, a patent is what they can use to protect their invention. While a copyright can help protect creative works like books, music and movies, and a trademark can help a company protect its tagline or logo, a patent can help protect inventions, such as products, processes, designs or even plants! A patent temporarily prevents others from making, using or selling an invention without the creator’s permission.


2. What Are the Different Types of Patents?

The three types of patents are utility, design and plant patents. A utility patent protects the function and structure of new machines, chemicals, methods or other useful items. A design patent protects the unique look of useful products and machines. (One of the most famous examples is the now-expired design patent on the shape of the Coca-Cola® bottle, which helped the Coca-Cola Co. prevent other beverage companies from using that bottle shape while the patent was in force!) And when someone creates a new strain or variety of plant, they can protect it with a plant patent.


3. Why Would an Inventor Want a Patent?

Scientists, engineers and inventors work hard to develop new solutions to problems and create products that are useful. They also understand that their ideas and inventions have value. An inventor might want a patent because it can help them protect their hard work.


4. How Does an Inventor Get a Patent?

Inventions are not automatically patented. First, they must be examined to make sure they are new, useful and not obvious. So, many inventors do a patent search to make sure their invention hasn’t already been patented before filing a patent application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Once filed, a patent examiner at the USPTO will compare the invention in the application to existing inventions and determine if the invention can be patented or not.


5. Why Do Patents Expire?

A U.S. patent typically expires after 20 years. Once a patent expires, anyone can access the IP, and they can innovate or build upon the idea, design or process behind the invention. It’s important for patents to have an expiration date because it encourages healthy competition among businesses and benefits society by driving more innovation, new ideas and even better solutions to problems.


Learn More

For more ideas on teaching kids about IP, we invite you to read our “Guide to Intellectual Property” blog series.

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