What happens when a patent expires?

If you have successfully commercialized your invention, and you feel that it is viable to retain exclusive rights to the invention, be aware that a US patent cannot be legally renewed. After expiration, you cannot reapply for a patent for the same invention. However, you can apply for a new patent for an improvement or modification to the invention.

The effects of patent expiration reach far and wide. One must be careful to not overlook them. You must also take into consideration the potential fees of a patent lawyer.

Patent Expiration Example: The Fidget Spinner

Patent expirations have created mass markets that hundreds of entrepreneurs and startups legally jump into without compensating or considering the inventor. For example, the fidget spinner. A chemical engineer – while not the originator of the fidget spinner – had a utility patent on the fidget spinner concept. As she was unsuccessful at commercializing it, she let the patent expire in 2014. 

Three years later, in 2017, the fidget spinner suddenly emerged as a new fad product, and a bestselling toy for several months. This was possible partly because many companies enjoyed a legal freedom to capitalize on the toy, without licensing or royalties – since no one held a patent on the fidget spinner concept.

After the patent expires, what can happen when a competitor makes a lower quality version of my product?

Sometimes, a company has no problem with patent expiration, as it deems exclusivity no longer relevant. Hence, competitors can clone the invention. In some large enough markets, they can do it without costing the original inventor in revenue. This is sometimes because the competitors sell lower-cost versions of the product. 

Most competitors may not have the expertise or financial resources to manufacture and sell a version equivalent in quality to the original. While it may not directly benefit the originator, it economically grows a market by making similar products available at lower price points.

Some customers are happy with the lower quality of the competitors. Others, who may be experts/power users, see it as an “entry” into the niche, and will still consider upgrading to the originator’s product. This is to a benefit on all ends. Generally, however, all exclusivity is theoretically eroded if the originator itself doesn’t have proprietary processes and trade secrets that are not part of the patent, and cannot be easily cloned by competitors. A patent is not the end-all be-all for a product. In the big picture, it’s the processes, tooling and labor that go into manufacturing it. In cases where processes can be easily cloned, the ability for the product to become “generic” is only limited by a company’s ability to effectively market it.

Prepare yourself for expiration: retain a patent attorney

Beyond filing a patent, preparing for expiration also requires a lot of thought. You could try it alone, but you may not even know enough about the market and forthcoming trends to accurately predict the side effects of your patent expiration.

One option is to consult a market analyst, or a fellow experienced industry expert, or someone else who has gone through a patent expiration. You can learn from their experience.

Also, to prepare financially for a patent expiration, it is a great idea to consult a patent attorney in Houston. They will outline a comprehensive plan for every stage of patenting, from registration, to litigation, and the lasting effect of the patent through its 25 years of validity.