Patent claims establish the boundaries or scope of an invention. They are the standard by which patent rights are measured. In other words, when a patent owner sues for infringement it is because someone has made, used, or sold an invention that has all of the elements in one of the claims, or that closely fits the description in the claims. In this manner, claims function like the boundaries in a deed for real estate. The claims are subject to rigorous examination during patent prosecution.
The scope of patent coverage -- that is, how narrow or broad the claims -- is determined by the novel features that distinguish an invention over the prior art and provide new results that are different or unexpected enough to be considered nonobvious. The fewer the novel features needed to distinguish the invention, the broader the scope of coverage. Stated differently, if many new features are needed to distinguish the invention from prior art, the coverage is narrow and it’s usually easier for a competitor to provide the same results without infringing.
Claims are usually made up of independent and dependent claims. One claim is stated as broadly as possible (the “independent claim”) and then followed successively with narrower claims designed to specifically recite possible variations (“dependent claims”). The independent claim stands by itself while a dependent claim always refers back and incorporates the language of another independent or dependent claim (see 35 U.S.C. Sec.112(3) and (4)). Below is an example of an independent and dependent claim for a golf club and bag security system (Pat. No. 5,973,596). In this example, the independent claim defines the elements of the golf bag security system and the dependent claim recites one aspect of it more specifically by stating that the alarm can be turned on and off by a separate device.
1. A golf bag security system for detecting movement of at least one golf club in a golf bag, the golf bag security system comprising:
a. a detection loop substantially arranged around the circumference of a golf bag
b. a loop oscillator circuit, connected to the detection loop
c. a control circuit, capable of detecting a change in inductance in the loop, identifying an alarm condition in response to the change of inductance, and
d. an alarm device responsive to the alarm condition.
2. The system defined in claim 1, additionally comprising an arming device enabling or disabling the security system.
In an infringement case, a court examines the claims of the patented invention and then compares them to the defendant’s device or process. The court determines if the claims read on (or cover) the defendant’s device or process. To infringe a patent, the defendant’s device must physically have or perform all of the elements contained in one of the claims. For example, if a patent claim recites two elements, (1) a hidden pocket in a scarf, and (2) a snap that makes the pocket detachable, a device that contains only a hidden pocket in a scarf won’t infringe.
A dependent claim cannot be infringed unless the allegedly infringing invention also infringes the related independent claim. In other words, if an independent claim is not infringed, then the dependent claims cannot be infringed.
Portions of this article are derived from Nolo's Patents for Beginners.Patent Claims: The Basics