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Surprise Attack

Inventors beware: Submarine patents could surface when you least expect it.

Lately, Congress has paid quite a bit of attention to improving current patent laws. That's good news for inventors: One of the main issues driving this reform is a phenomenon known as the "submarine patent."

To help you understand the concept of a submarine patent, let me share with you some patent history. Prior to the 1995 patent reform that resulted from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), you would fill out a patent application for your great idea, then file it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). Once received by the PTO, your application was date-stamped, and that date was known as your patent filing date.

Back then, the patent application would normally remain on file with the PTO for one and a half to two years before it was assigned a patent number. The date this patent number was assigned was called the patent issue date. From the date of filing until the date of issue, your patent was in "patent pending" status and you, the inventor, had no rights. Once your patent was granted, however, your idea had 17 years of patent protection beginning from the issue date.

Tomima Edmark, the woman famous for her Topsy Tail invention has now turned her creative talents to the competitive retail arena of intimate apparel, HerRoom and HisRoom.

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This article was originally published in the November 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Surprise Attack.

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