Patent owners spend thousands of dollars to obtain patents on innovations. Yet many—large companies in particular—often devalue that investment by making mistakes with the marking of their commercial products with appropriate patent numbers. Patent owners who do not properly mark their products may limit the amount of damages they recover from competitors who steal their ideas.
The current patent law allows a patent owner to recover damages for patent infringement occurring prior to the filing of a lawsuit in two circumstances. First, where the patent owner notifies the infringer, in which case the patent owner’s ability to obtain damages begins with the date of actual notice. Providing actual notice can cause concerns though if the patent owner is not prepared to initiate immediate litigation due to lack of resources or other business reasons. When threatened with the notice, the infringer can actually drag the patent owner into litigation with a declaratory judgment action of non-infringement or patent invalidity. Also, the risk of equitable estoppel surfaces if the patent owner delays enforcing it rights during which time the infringer acts, because the infringer believes it will not be sued. Thus, equitable estoppel can prevent a patent owner from enforcing its patent rights.
The recent America Invents Act allows patent owners to patent mark their products in an easier manner. It is called “virtual marking.” Virtual marking is accomplished by placing the word “patent” or “pat.” together with an Internet address on the patented product. The Internet address must associate the patented product with the applicable patent numbers, and must also be accessible to the public free of charge.
I would suggest placing on all products or labels (if the products themselves do not have room), whether patented or not, the phrase “Patents: www.yourcompanyname.com/patents.” This page on your website should list your company’s products and the patents associated with those products. It should also include some language similar to the following: “[Company name] is marking the products specifically identified on this website pursuant to 35 U.S.C. § 287(a) by associating each identified product with one or more patents that cover that product. If a product is not specifically identified on this website, it is not currently being so marked.” Those words should make it extremely clear to your competitors which products and ideas to steer clear of at the risk of litigation.