This is a common question. Just because your company owns a patent doesn’t necessarily mean that you can practice what is covered by the patent. Sound crazy? It’s true. A patent is a negative right. Generally speaking, a patent gives the owner the right to preclude others from making, using, selling, offering for sale and/or importing what is protected by the patent during the term of the patent. However, a patent does not guarantee that the patent owner can make what is covered by the patent without infringing someone else’s rights. A simple example illustrates this point.
Company A invents the first inflatable bicycle tire. Company B comes up with the idea of adding a valve stem to the tire so that the tire is more easily inflated and Company B is awarded a patent on a bicycle tire with a valve stem as it is a new, useful and non-obvious improvement to Company A’s patented tire. Then, Company B makes its first tire with a valve stem and receives a cease and desist letter from Company A alleging infringement of Company A’s broader (or more dominant) patent for just the tire. Company B has a problem as it has manufactured Company A’s patented tire. It doesn’t matter that it added anything to it (i.e., the valve stem) as Company A’s patent broadly covers any inflatable bicycle tire. Company B is not left without some leverage however. Should Company A desire to make a tire with a valve stem (because it is a much more compelling product for consumers), it could not do so without Company B’s permission. In the end, the companies would probably cross-license the use of their respective patents.
How could this scenario possibly have been avoided? While many of the more dominant patents would have been uncovered during the patent application process for Company B’s patent, it is advisable to have a “prior art” search of existing patents conducted, especially if your company is thinking about actually manufacturing the product. The breadth of any existing patents can be assessed so that you can ensure that your company is not walking into a landmine.
Another option is to commission a “freedom to operate” opinion by a patent attorney. In this context, the patent attorney will scour a sea of patents that are possibly relevant to your idea and will give you an assessment of how crowded the space is before you move forward with manufacturing your invention. This type of a search differs from a “prior art” search in that it is much broader in scope and will entail looking for any patents that might address any aspect of your invention vs. just looking for patents that are essentially for the same invention (e.g., looking for any patents that are for just a valve stem used in any context vs. conducting a prior art search to find patents on a tire with a valve stem).
In the end, you just need to remember that a patent does not grant you the right to practice the patented invention. It allows you to prevent others from doing so. If you plan on practicing your invention, you should strongly consider hiring someone to conduct a review of the existing prior art (e.g., patents) so that you don’t run into later problems.