Why is it legal to sell a patent in the first place?

It doesn't seem right that someone who had nothing to do with a product being invented be granted the de facto title of "inventor" that holding a patent provides. This type of non-inventing inventorship seems to serve only trolls. Before the rights that patents provide and are legally upheld in court are argued, can anyone provide a good reason for the legality of patent sale in the first place?


First of all, you cannot sell "inventorship," you can only sell "ownership," and the exclusionary rights under the patent.

The problem with a system where you can't sell patents is interesting. It essentially means that a patent is only worth money if you use it against somebody. And there are some problems with that...

  • Solo inventors can't always afford to sue, but they usually can afford to sell.
  • Some groups, like universities, hospitals or research groups, don't want to sue, or deal with lawsuits, so they'll just sell.
  • Companies want to invest tons of money in research, and if they go under before they turn that research into a product, being able to sell the patent, whether in bankruptcy or because the research didn't pan out so well, really helps cushion the blow. This in turn incentivizes those companies to invest more in research.
  • Eh, massive companies play war games with one another all the time. And sometimes, selling the patents to the company that wants them more actually allows more stuff to come to market. So, who cares?

That's not to say that it's a perfect system. If you wanted, you could imagine a system where you could neither sell a patent nor grant an exclusive license. That might result in a lot more permission... or a lot more trolling.

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  • You are speaking of the system as it stands. I am asking a more philosophical question about how ethical it is to sell a patent (and all it stands for) in the first place. – WesleyOldaker May 14 '15 at 7:58
  • I disagree that a patent "is only worth money if you use it against somebody", no matter what universe this hypothetical system exists. I think that a patent should be worth the ability to openly discuss your idea (once made tangible, and this is important) without having to hand out non-disclosure agreements in fear of retaliation or worse. – WesleyOldaker May 14 '15 at 8:05
  • But you're free to talk about it anyway. It's just, somebody else might use the idea also. If you want them not to use the idea, you not only need a patent, but you need to be willing to use the patent against somebody. All a patent is is the right to stop somebody else from doing something. – Daniel Jun 13 '15 at 22:51

A purchaser of a patent becomes the owner of the patent. Only the true inventors are inventors no matter who owns the patent. If you look at the first page of a patent you will see one spot labeled inventor and another labeled assignee. The ownership changing hands has no effect on the solidness of the patent.

If the inventor can't license or sell their rights, the ways they can get value for their contribution are limited.

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  • 1
    I was speaking only of the underlying value of the patent itself; as a means of protecting the little guy with a big idea from the big guy with a lot of money. I do, however, agree with your last statement, with one caveat: If the inventor can't license or sell their _invention_, the ways they can get value for their contribution are limited. – WesleyOldaker May 14 '15 at 7:54

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