I came up with an idea and after getting it submitted to a patent agent. I found that something similar had been submitted in 1998. I was told by my agent that there is nothing I can do as far as patenting the idea because of it's prior art and the similarities. If I had the rights I would be able to make it the way I envisioned. The owner of this patent has never paid the maintenance fees on this idea but it still hasn't been 20 years for it to actually expire. Though I could be making this idea and marketing it I want the rights so if my product takes off a major corporation can't just take it from me. How do I go about this?
Unpaid maintenance fees expire the patent I believe.
"Unless payment of the applicable maintenance fee is received in the United States Patent and Trademark Office on or before the date the fee is due or within a grace period of 6 months thereafter, the patent will expire as of the end of such grace period."
It seems either the inventor was lazy, perhaps dead, or purposely desired the idea to enter the public domain quickly whilst memorializing his contribution forever in the patent system.
People, including you, are likely free to manufacture the idea described by this patent. You might consider patenting some subtle and novel improvement. You should also be wary of others than might have done the same.
Also see this... Failure to pay maintenance fees
The prior answer is accurate - if maintenance fees weren't paid before the final deadline, it is expired. The subject matter is now in the public domain. In some cases the owner can revive the rights by petitioning that they "unintentionally" or "unavoidably" didn't pay, but that's unusual. Also, there's not really a way for you to "take over" the rights. Now it's public domain.
Just FYI, the patent owner has up to 2 years to petition the USPTO to revive the lapsed patent. However, the longer the time elapsed, the less likely this is to be successful. If you are going to spend (for example) a million bucks to enter this market, you need to keep this possibility in mind. Good luck!