A patent family is a group of patents the same person or company owns within different countries. For example, a product can be created and released in the United States, Japan and Europe on or around the same date, so patents need to be held in each country to protect the product copyrights. This type of patent family is called a triadic patent. Other times, an invention could be released in one country and not in another for several years, forcing the inventor to file for a new or continuing patent on the product. This can create a sort of patent genealogy.
When an inventor gets a patent in one country and then releases the product for sale or investment, this becomes the parent or primary patent on the invention. Then, if the product becomes popular enough that it is released in another country, a patent will be applied for its release in that country. This second patent is known as a child or secondary patent. Building a sort of patent family tree can help a company or person hold the exclusive rights to an invention for much longer than the original patent would allow.
Another way to build a patent family is through a continuing patent application. There are three types of this application, which allow an inventor to continue in full, operate a partial continuation or create an all-new divisional patent. Filing to continue in full can be thought of as simply renewing the whole patent once it has reached its expiration.
When an inventor chooses a partial continuation, he or she must detail what to continue. For years after the inception of continuation-in-part (CIP) applications, this was abused by inventors, who used the system as a way to indefinitely extend their patents over very large product varieties. In 2007, new rules went into effect limiting inventors to two continuations of each product covered in a patent unless they can show good reason for more extensions.
A patent family helps an inventor cover his creations and protect them from unauthorized use or theft. Whenever a person or company wants to re-create a product already covered by a patent, they must get permission from the patent holder and pay fees or royalties. When patents expire, however, they are opened to the general public for others to re-invent and improve upon. Understanding each arm of a patent family is crucial to following the laws and avoiding trouble.