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Is there any law or regulation that prevents or regulates the inventions made by public figures?

Public figures are people with hobbies and maybe some dedicate their free time to research. Will they be allowed to create any patents or announce their discoveries while in office?

Extreme example - what happens if say, a person in office is a president of the United States and they invent stuff like cold nuclear fusion that will likely change our lives - will they be forced to hold on and not patent it while they are in office? Will they be allowed to even announce it?

Reason for asking is obvious - since they are still in office (and I guess even after that in many cases) there could be conflict of interests where such person would have a lot of leverage to influence decisions pertaining to said inventions - like contracts, funding and so on.

If they are allowed to do it without any restrictions, are there some precedents of this happening?

Country I'm mostly interested in - the US, but any references to international law are welcome as well (if applicable)

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Will they be allowed to even announce it?

That's an easy one: Yes, the President of the United States can absolutely announce the invention of whatever they want. Firstly, such an announcement is very likely to be protected by the First Amendment regardless of whether the announcement is made by the President or by any other person, because making an announcement is clearly a form of speech. In some cases, there might be concerns that a particular invention implicates the national security of the United States, in which case disclosure of the invention is unlawful (see 35 USC 181), but the President can unilaterally declassify anything, so under 35 USC 187, the President is very likely exempt from the entire secrecy law altogether. Obviously, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea for the President to ignore the national security implications, but they have the legal power to do so if they wish.

There are also serious questions about the Constitutionality of 35 USC 181, because it constitutes a prior restraint on speech, and prior restraints are nearly always unconstitutional under well-established Supreme Court precedent. See particularly United States v. Progressive, which frustratingly never reached a firm conclusion on a closely-related issue, due to the government dropping the case. Nevertheless, there is a colorable legal argument that even national security considerations are not an adequate basis to impose a prior restraint on specific people in this fashion. If this argument is correct, then anyone can announce the invention of anything they like, President or not.

As to whether the President can patent it, it depends on whether they received federal funding to conduct the research, or did it on their own time and with their own money. If they did it on their own time, then the answer appears to be "yes, they can patent it," as far as I can tell. If they did it with federal assistance, then complicated rules apply to protect the national interests of the United States.

As far as conflicts of interest are concerned, the normal way to deal with this problem is to put all of the President's assets (held before they were elected) into a blind trust, which might or might not then proceed to liquidate and/or diversify the President's portfolio in order to further distance it from any specific company or industry's interests. By design, the President should neither know nor control how, when, and whether that diversification happens.

It's not common for the President to invent something world-changing while in office, because the presidential office is already more than a full-time job. As a result, any specific discussion of how this problem would be solved will necessarily be somewhat speculative. I imagine that the President would proceed to create a corporation or other legal entity, give the patent to that entity, and then hand its ownership over to the President's pre-existing blind trust. But this is very much uncharted territory, and it's possible that the White House might come up with an alternative means of insulating the President from the conflict of interest. For example, they might form some sort of committee to formally advise the President and provide a paper trail of justifications for the President's actions with respect to their invention.

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  • @GeorgeWhite: As I explain in this answer, while that is usually the case, 35 USC 181 provides for classification of certain inventions under very specific circumstances. Such classified inventions are not public and it is unlawful to disclose them (to the extent that this restriction is actually constitutional, anyway). Also, in that case, no patent is actually granted.
    – Kevin
    Oct 17 '21 at 0:36
  • @GeorgeWhite: OP asked whether the President would be permitted to disclose the invention. I gave an answer which highlights a specific provision of law that actually protects the President's right to disclose it, in a way that does not apply to other citizens. Personally, I think that is highly relevant to OP's question, but perhaps you have interpreted the question differently than I did.
    – Kevin
    Oct 17 '21 at 2:18
  • Upon rereading the question and your answer I agree with you. Oct 17 '21 at 17:05
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Yes - there is no prohibition on a public figure, even the president, thinking up something and filing a patent application. A government employee who invented in the course of their job would probably be required to assign it to the agency they work for but an elected official is not in that position.

Can a president create the intellectual property of an authored book while in office? Of course, and getting a patent is no different

What could be an issue is starting a business to exploit the invention. Any such business might need to be run independently from the president. Maybe there are sons sho could do it. A patent licensing business and a real estate business seem no different to me, legally.

Our only president with a patent so far was Abraham Lincoln. It was in the 1840’s before he was president and involved crossing waterways.

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You gave the President as a deliberately silly example of a public figure, by which I think you meant, public employee. The President doing it raises a number of issues that would be unique, and have never been litigated, so I’ll answer for employees of the federal government in general.

Under Executive Order 10096, which was issued by President Harry Truman in 1950, and is also codified as 37 CFR Part 501, “Uniform Patent Policy for Rights in Inventions Made by Government Employees,”

The Government shall obtain the entire right, title, and interest in and to all inventions made by any Government employee during working hours, or with a contribution by the Government of facilities, equipment, materials, funds, or information, or of time or services of other Government employees on official duty, or which bear a direct relation to or are made in consequence of the official duties of the inventor.

A government employee is allowed to obtain a patent for something invented on his or her own time, with no or very little use of government property.

A few cases where a federal employee had sued the federal government over an invention they wanted to patent reached the Supreme Court before this executive order went into effect.

Some other federal laws and regulations might also apply. For example, the Invention Secrecy Act allows the government to place a secrecy order on any invention whose disclosure would harm national security. The Atomic Energy Act is another such law.

Title 17 of the US Code declares that “a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties” is considered “a work of the United States Government” and not under copyright either.

By the way, “public figure,” so far as I know, is a term from defamation law. Politicians generally are public figures (and it is therefore much harder for them to win a lawsuit for libel or slander), but not all government employees would be considered public figures, and most public figures are not government employees. It’s unrelated to who can apply for a patent.

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    Note that POTUS is not a government employee.
    – user6726
    Oct 17 '21 at 4:53
  • Fundamentally, the question of whether the President would be allowed to do this would be political, not legal.
    – Davislor
    Oct 17 '21 at 5:39
  • There’s an obvious conflict of interest, in that the President appoints and has the power to fire the people in charge of the Patent Office’s decision about whether he or she gets to own cold fusion and pocket all the royalties from it. However, there is no legal remedy when the President personally profits from a conflict of interest, other than impeachment.
    – Davislor
    Oct 17 '21 at 5:58
  • If a patent was granted even though it did not meet the requirements for patentabity due to improper influence and it was enforced, it could be knocked down by the courts. Oct 18 '21 at 1:33
  • @GeorgeWhite Or there’s the precedent of Gill v. United States, 160 U.S. 426 (1896), which might conceivably be cited as an argument to deny the patent.
    – Davislor
    Oct 18 '21 at 2:10

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