inventions and discoveries are self-disclosing once the products that incorporate them are sold.
Even if secrecy is feasible, it might not be socially desirable. Disclosure of underlying technology might help in marketing a product, for example. One might also want to promote disclosure in the interest of furthering technological progress in the field. This could be of particular relevance to science.
Patent protection is an alternative strategy for protecting rights in some inventions. It does not require secrecy. A patent gives an inventor the right to exclude others from making, using, and selling the patent invention for a limited term: 17 years from the date that the patent is issued under current U.S. law and 20 years from the application-filing date in most of the world. The inventor may choose to make, use and sell the patented invention or to license others to do so on an exclusive or nonexclusive basis, or even to suppress the use of the invention entirely. At least under U.S. law, there is no compulsory licensing provision. One can use a patent to block the use of an invention entirely.
One thing that cannot be done when one obtains a patent is to keep the invention secret. To get a patent, one files an application that fully discloses the invention, including how to make and use it. In Europe, this disclosure is made public 18 months after a patent application is filed. In the United States, it is made public as soon as the patent is issued. (One can disclose an invention as soon as the application is filed without jeopardizing the likelihood of getting a patent.) Patents compel disclosure. They also promote it by providing a system of rights that survive disclosure.
In industrial research, it is fairly uncontroversial that patents promote greater disclosure of research results than would the absence of patent rights. That is less clear in academic research, which would otherwise presumably be freely disclosed (rather than maintained as a trade secret), and that is one reason why some scientists are hostile to the patent system: exclusive patent rights promote disclosure in the long run, but they entail some measure of secrecy in the short term.
Because the patent system protects useful inventions, rather than basic knowledge, an investigator might learn something that is worth publishing before the research has ripened into a patentable invention. The delay need not be great, once the investigator makes a patentable invention and has access to a patent lawyer. It could be longer if the research has not yet yielded a patentable invention. Disclosure at this early stage, when one has interesting scientific information but not a patentable invention, might limit what can be patented later, because the scientific information will become “prior art” that will limit what can be patented. U.S. law provides a one-year grace period under that allows an inventor to file a patent application within a year of