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What is prior art and why does it matter?

Most business-related patent litigation boils down to disputes concerning prior art. Essentially, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) evaluates prior art during the patent application process as a means of discerning whether a company’s innovation is truly novel. In theory, patents are only extended to safeguard innovations whose novelty has not been compromised by the existence of prior art. 

“Prior art” is an umbrella term used to describe any evidence that may be presented to indicate that a particular innovation is already known. Say, for example, that your company hopes to patent its unique manufacturing process for widgets. If a search for prior art does not reveal any meaningful evidence that the process in question is already known, the USPTO should extend patent protection to the process.

If, however, meaningful evidence of prior art exists, a patent application would be rejected due to the inability of the applicant to prove that the process is truly novel. 

When disputes arise

One would think that after the USPTO has extended patent protection to an innovation, questions as to its novelty would never arise. However, disputes concerning prior art – filed prior to, during and even after the patent application process has been completed – occur with significant frequency. 

As a result, if your company either believes that the novelty of another company’s innovation has been compromised by your previous business efforts or if your company is being accused of infringing upon the intellectual property rights of another, know that your enterprise is not navigating uncharted waters. It is important to seek legal guidance as soon as you can to better ensure that your company’s interests are protected as completely as possible, no matter what happens to be going on.