A patent is a government-awarded license that grants the inventor of a product or process exclusive rights to its manufacture, use or sale for a specified time period.
The word patent comes from the Latin patere (to lay open), which translates as to make available for inspection. As a condition of the patent, the inventor agrees to disclosure. However, although it is possible for others to examine the details of the patent, it is illegal to copy the product or process described. Exclusivity, in this context, means that any unauthorized party that uses a patented process, or manufactures or sells a patented product can be sued for infringement.
Applications for patents must be able to demonstrate that what the patent is intended to protect is something completely new -- at least in part -- and sufficiently inventive that the idea behind it would not naturally occur to many people.
In IT, many processes are protected by business method patents. A business involves combining software automation with more traditional business methodology. As with other patents, the holder can license their method and profit from it or use the patent to block competitors.
Business method patents date back over 100 years, when Herman Hollerith patented his Hollerith Electric Tabulating System.
See also: patent troll