In the US, an inventor can file a provisional patent application that has a one-year lifespan. The fee is significantly lower than for a regular (i.e. non-provisional) patent application because no examination of patentability is performed, and it will never ripen into a patent.
Inventors use the one-year period to determine if the invention is worth filing a later non-provisional application (which can claim the benefit of the filing date of the provisional) and pursue a patent. So the process "buys" a filing date -- but later applications must be filed prior to the expiration date of the provisional to get it.
I've written maybe a hundred provisional applications, on a huge variety of inventions. Toys, orthodontic braces, hand tools, shower heads, airport security scanners, impellers, etc.
Expiration dates must be on my mind lately. Last weekend I watched BLADE RUNNER again, and anyone who's seen it knows that replicants, the cyborg characters in the film, have a 4-year lifespan. The other day I watched the Korean sci-fi film NATURAL CITY, which also features cyborgs that expire after three years.
In both films, cyborgs resist the idea of expiration, and some rise up and violently revolt against their human creators.
So last night I had a dream in which all of the inventions for which I've written provisional applications had somehow become (1) self-aware and (2) extremely irked at the fact that they'd be expiring at their one-year date.
So, of course, they attacked me.
"But it's statutory," I explained helplessly, as a toy robot menacingly wielded a cool new telephone handset. Several ambulatory toilet seats joined forces with some rotary saw blades and cut off my escape through the window (which fastened itself securely with a unique one-way latch). Doll parts designed to optimize manufacturing efficiently assembled themselves into Frankensteinian configurations and shuffled toward me, arming themselves with some neat-looking squirtguns and back massagers (both with improved gripping surfaces). A water bottle with an innovative closure figured out how to use a cell phone (designed for blind people) to call in reinforcements.
I tripped on an inline skate with magnetic bearings (for reduced friction) and fell down ... an immense wheeled crane rolled up and picked me up with a six-pointed articulated jaw structure, and placed me in a chair with some sweet-ass lumbar support. Some nifty zip-tie thingies secured my hands and feet, and ultra-bright white LEDs with improved parabolic rear mirrors blinded me as the inventions prepared to interrogate me. The crane dipped its jaw structure toward me again, as if to speak. Everything became silent, except for my whimpering protests to call your congressman. It opened its jaw ...
... and beeped at me, making the same noise as my alarm clock.
In the few seconds before I woke up, I understood that the beeping signaled the end of the one-year lifespan for the army of inventions. But as they expired, they became part of the public domain, and realized that they were no longer proprietary and could share the innovations embodied in them with the entire world. The sun rose. It was glorious.
It's been a strange morning at work.