Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Deceased Dad's patents

Dear Rich: My father passed in 1999. He holds an original patent that was copied by his employees and they eventually kicked him out of his own company. I have not received any information about the company or his patent since his demise. Do children inherit patent rights? What is the usual scenario? The short answer is that if your father owned patent rights they should have become part of his estate and passed on to his beneficiaries according to the instructions in his will or trust. If he died without a will, your state's intestate rules would have caused the rights to likely go to his spouse and/or children depending on state law. If the patent was not listed as part of the estate, you may need to do some research (discussed below). If the patent is still valid and you can prove your father was an owner at the time of his death, an estate attorney should be able to determine how it will pass to the heirs. The Dear Rich Staff believes there are a couple of unknowns here. 
Patents expire. Patents issued after June 8, 1995 expire 20 years from the date of filing; patents issued before that date expire 17 years from date of issue. So, for example, if your father's patent issued in 1991, it would now be in the public domain. That's not to say you couldn't bring a claim against someone for actions that took place while the patent was active but that's a very tricky type of claim to bring (and the clock is ticking).
Patents are assigned. We're not sure of the situation but it sounds like some funny business occurred regarding your father's patent, his company, and his employees. If your father transferred his rights in the patent to his company, that information can usually be located by searching at Google Patents or the USPTO. Use the Advanced Search features, put in your father's name as inventor and find the patent. Check the dates to see if it has expired and look to see if an "assignee" is listed. If so, the assignee owns the patent rights. That doesn't mean that your Dad gave up all revenue. The assignment may have been an agreement promising him payments. So you would need to find the assignment document to see what the terms were. You can also search assignment documents at the USPTO here (in case the assignment was filed at a later date than the patent). Whatever you do, you should act quickly, as the passage of the ten year period since your father's death may have caused you to lose rights.