What does “Patent Pending” mean?

Jordon Trapnell is a guest author on this post.  He writes:

The words “patent pending” can be seen on products just about anywhere you look.  However, many people are confused by what it really means and what protection it offers.  The purpose of the patent pending label is to allow the inventor of a product to notify the public that they have applied for a patent on that product.  The requirement in order to use the label is simply that a patent application is on file with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; a provisional application also fulfills this requirement.  Keep in mind that a provisional application expires after 12 months, at which point “patent pending” could not be used unless a subsequent non-provisional application was filed during that period.

Patent pending offers no legal protection.  If Company “A” starts selling a product that is patent pending, Company “B” could legally make and sell that same product as long as the actual patent has not been issued.  However, this does not mean that there is no reason to use a patent pending mark.  A “patent pending” indication can often deter Company “B” above.  They must consider the possibility that the patent will issue, in which case they would have to stop selling the product they copied immediately or pay “A” in order to continue, both of which have tremendous costs.  No company wants to go through the process of manufacturing a new product, only to be able to sell it for a few months.  Aside from being a deterrent to competitors who might copy a product, “patent pending” can also look attractive to investors or consumers, making it an effective marketing tool.

An inventor can sue only after the patent is granted, not during the patent pending period.  Damages are not simply calculated from the date the patent issues though.  Damages are calculated from the time two prerequisites are met.  The first is that the application is published, which typically happens 18 months after it is first filed or when the patent is granted.  The second is that the infringer has received either “constructive” or “actual” notice.  Constructive notice is marking the article with the patent number.  Actual notice consists of sending a letter to the infringer.  Filing a lawsuit is also considered actual notice, but relying solely on that would result in a shorter damage period.  So one way to maximize the period from which damages can be collected is to send notification letters as soon as the application is published.  However, it is important to know that doing so may expose the sender to other very serious consequences.

Since the “patent pending” label carries no legal weight, it may be tempting to mark a product as such even though no application has been filed in order to incur its other possible benefits.  However, falsely marking something as patent pending is illegal and carries a fine of up to $500 for every offense.  Each mismarked article is a separate offense under current interpretation, meaning the fine could add up very quickly.  The law also states that any person may sue for the penalty, which means it’s not just the government that may come after you, but any competitor diligent enough to check your claim of patent pending.

No other information needs to be included with the patent pending label on the product.  In fact, it is often important that the application serial number not be included.  This serial number could potentially allow others to delay or compromise the consideration of the patent application.

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  1. Does “falsely marking something as patent pending” include marking it as such even if it falls into the pending claims but not into the granted ones?
    I would assume it is false marking as soon as the patent is granted, but is good faith assumed for the pending period?
    And what if several applications are filed one after the other, so to keep a chain of pending applications, when in fact none will be granted?

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