It’s easy to think of inventors who changed the world with their revolutionary inventions. Steve Jobs, right? Except that he didn’t invent any of Apple’s breakthrough products (Macintosh, iPod, iPhone). He was instead Apple’s driving force, pushing Steve Wozniak and others to refine existing technologies and package them in sleek, quality housing.
OK, Jobs doesn’t qualify as an inventor who changed the world, but how about Thomas Edison? Nope. He was another brilliant distiller of ideas. He combined a better filament and an improved vacuum to create a lightbulb with a dramatically extended lifespan.
Standing on shoulders
As we can see, many inventors – even culture-realigning, industry-redefining inventors – stood on the shoulders of giants to see further and reimagine and refine existing inventions.
Most patents issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) describe improvements to existing products, designs or plants, rather than entirely new inventions.
Improving an existing invention
Improvement patents enhance an existing product in one of the following ways:
- Addition: adding to an existing invention.
- Substitution: changing some aspect of an existing invention.
- Incorporating new technology: when tech improves product manufacturing.
- New use: when an existing invention is used for an entirely new reason.
As for that last item – new use – there are a number of examples, including Viagra. Originally a treatment for symptoms of heart disease, it was found in clinical trials to have a side effect many men found pleasing. Marketing plans were reworded and the rest is straight-up history.
It should be noted that if your invention improves upon an existing patented invention, you can’t build or use or sell that existing invention. If you do any of that without a licensing agreement or another form of explicit permission, you might be guilty of patent infringement.
Before you pursue a patent for an improvement to an existing product, speak with an attorney who can help you determine if your invention is both patentable (meaning it’s meaningful, new, non-obvious and useful) and marketable.