Just when you thought that the United States Patent and Trademark Office might be done with rulemaking for at least a bit, taking a collective sigh of relief after the final implementation of first-to-file rules on March 16, 2013, and new fees on March 19, 2013, the USPTO is back at it again. This time the USPTO is proposing rules necessary to implement he Patent Law Treaties Implementation Act of 2012 (PLTIA). SeeChanges to Implement Patent Law Treaty – Proposed Rules.
First, what is the Patent Law Treaty? The official party line is that the PLT harmonizes and streamlines formal procedures pertaining to the filing and processing of patent applications. Still, I am just worn out from all the changes!
Historically the PLT was concluded on June 1, 2000, and entered into force on April 28, 2005. The United States Senate ratified the PLT on December 7, 2007, but it did not become effective in the United States upon ratification in 2007 because it is not a self-executing treaty. Legislation (i.e., title II of the PLTIA) to amend the provisions of title 35 to become compliant with our new treaty obligations was enacted on December 18, 2012.
The PLTIA amended U.S. patent laws to implement the provisions of the Hague Agreement Concerning International Registration of Industrial Designs (Hague Agreement) in title I, and the Patent Law Treaty (PLT) in title II. However, we have to look forward to additional proposed rules because the USPTO is implementing the Hague Agreement and title I of the PLTIA in a separate rulemaking. This proposed rules package pertains only to the changes required to implement the PLT.
A patent is a proprietary right granted by the United States federal government to an inventor who files a patent application with the United States Patent Office. Therefore, unlike copyright and trademark protection, patent protection will only exist upon the issuance of a patent, which requires you to file a patent application. You absolutely must file a patent application and have that application mature into an issued patent in order to obtain exclusive rights to your invention.
Furthermore, despite what you may have been told or read, keeping a detailed invention notebook, even if you mail a description of the invention to yourself, provides no exclusive rights. It has always been extremely important to keep detailed invention records in case you ever need to prove the particular date you invented. Notice the use of past tense in the previous sentence. On March 16, 2013, the United States moves to a first inventor to file system, which significantly changes U.S. patent law. For all intents and purposes inventors would do themselves well to assume that first inventor to file meansfile first!
That being said, there is a very limited grace period that is far more narrow than anything the U.S. has previously had. Inventors should not, in my opinion, rely on the grace period whatsoever — it is extraordinarily narrow. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that in some very limited circumstances it will be necessary to demonstrate that someone else derived your invention from you after you disclosed your invention. The only way to be able to hope to prove that will be with detailed records. Thus, record keeping should become more robust moving forward. You will not only need records that relate to how and when you arrived at the invention, but you will need records about how and when you disclosed your invention. Still, filing some kind of patent application as soon as possible will be the best move.
When filing a patent application it is extremely important to make sure that the invention is as fully described as possible. Patent attorneys say this all the time, but what does it really mean? How do you “fully describe” an invention in a patent application?
The answer is that you always want to have as much information about the invention as possible. You want to very broadly and generally describe the invention, but you also need to have high specific discussion of the various nuances of each and every aspect of the invention. Frequently inventors will say to me, “but I don’t want to be highly specific because then it will be easy for someone to get around my invention.” This is typically following with a very confident: “Therefore, I will only generally describe my invention without mentioning to many specifics.” That is a tragic mistake.
What happens if the patent examiner finds the broad, general description of your invention to be in the prior art? If you don’t have nuances described in your specification what will happen is you will get a rejection that is impossible to overcome. Those nuances are going to be how you distinguish your invention over the prior art, both the prior art you know about when you file but more importantly the prior art that you didn’t know about and couldn’t have known about because it hadn’t yet been published prior to your filing.
Senator Leahy (L) and Congressman Smith (R), shown at the signing of the AIA, sponsored this Patent Treaty implementation legislation.
On Wednesday, December 5, 2012, the House of Representatives passed two bills that are now await President Obama’s signature. The bill — S. 3486— implements both the Patent Law Treaty (PLT) and the Hague Agreement Concerning the International Registration of Industrial Designs. The U.S. Senate previously passed the same bill in the same form on September 22, 2012. Thus, the remaking of U.S. patent law and patent practice continues, and we will see more rulemaking coming from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
S.3486 is the implementing legislation that modifies U.S. consistent with treaty obligations. The Senate ratified both the PLT and Hague Agreement in 2007.
With respect to the Hague Agreement, it will now be possible to file a single application in English at the USPTO and have that application be the basis for design protection in each country that has similarly adopted the treaty.
Whether you are an independent inventor, an fledgling entrepreneur or a seasoned inventor who is going out on your own for the first time, the best thing you can do for yourself is to become familiar with the concepts and procedure associated with protecting your inventions. Obtaining patents is not easy for the uninitiated, and without some familiarity you will be wandering aimlessly and wholly incapable of making sound business decisions. Simply stated: Inventors who are completely unfamiliar with the patent process also won’t be able to help in any meaningful way with the patent process. This is far more tragic than you might suspect.
Sure, if you can afford to you should hire a patent attorney to assist you. The patent attorney is there to, among other things, drag information about your invention out of you and translate it into the archaic legalese used in patent applications. The job of the patent attorney is to present your invention in a way that is most likely to accentuate the positive — namely the core uniqueness of your invention that will most probably lend itself to being determined to be patentably distinct compared with other inventions.
Even when hiring a patent attorney inventors still need to be engaged in order to give the patent attorney the best information available about the invention. This seems simple enough, but so many inventors fail to understand what information is important and why it is necessary. If you don’t understand the “why” you will you will almost never be able to provide all the information necessary.
While I don’t mean to imply that inventors are children, a perfect example of what I’m talking about comes from when parents attempt to teach their children not to touch the stove. Why? Because it is hot, of course. But does the child really understand that? No, not until they touch it anyway and connect “hot” with the pain they experienced. Experiential learning is formative for children, and in my experience the most powerful, formative type of learning — even for adults!
Inventors and entrepreneurs who shop around find that if they take their invention to a number of different patent attorneys they are likely to get a number of different quotes for services ranging from patent searches to patent applications. In fact, you have probably seen the ads on the Internet where a patent attorney or patent agent proclaim that they can prepare and file a U.S. nonprovisional patent application for some ridiculously low price, perhaps as low as $1,400. It is my opinion that there is no legitimate way to adequately prepare and file a nonprovisional patent application for $1,400. In fact, the lowest quotes we typically provide are for between $6,000 to $8,000 plus the filing fees and costs of drawings. See Cost of Obtaining a Patent. So why the great disparity? The first thing to understand is that like everything else in life, you get what you pay for. There is just no way to escape that economic reality.
Often times a patent attorney or patent agent will start with drafting a set of claims. In fact, it is probably accurate to say that about 70% of patent attorneys start with the claims. There is nothing wrong with starting with the claims, and there is nothing wrong with starting with the written description, it is a matter of preference really. The claims will be what defines the exclusive rights that are ultimately granted, and many patent attorneys and agents think in terms of claims. The difficulty comes, however, when a set of claims are drafted and then the written description is drafted to match the set of claims crafted. When this occurs the written description is no broader than the claims, which means that there is no support in the written description for anything other than the claims originally filed. This is one way that some bargain basement providers operate, and it can be catastrophic for the unknowledgeable inventor.
There really is no one-size-fits-all approach to inventing that can be claimed to be a road-map to success that will work in all cases. Notwithstanding, there are certainly a number of things that can and should be done early in the inventing process if an inventor is going to pursue inventing as more than a hobby. I continually preach to inventors the need to follow what I call a “business responsible” approach, which is really just my way of counseling inventors to remember that the goal is to not only invent but to hopefully make some money. Truthfully, the goal is to make more money than what has been invested, which is how the United States Congress defined “success” in the American Inventors Protection Act of 1999. The odds of being successful with one of your inventions increase dramatically if you engage in some simple steps to ensure you are not investing time and money on an invention that has little promise.
I am frequently asked a version of the same question by inventors, which goes something like this: “I have an idea but I am unable to turn it into anything myself. I am going to need some help. What should I do to make sure I am protected?”
Patent attorneys and agents reading will likely start to immediately say that ideas cannot be patented and it doesn’t sound like you have anything that could be protected. I too have explained that to many inventors of the years and written about that very topic (see Protecting Ideas and Moving from Idea to Patent). But with this presentation there is no way to know yet whether there is an invention lurking there or whether the individual has merely a raw idea without any knowledge about how to bring it into being. Thus, this question begs the essential inquiry, which is this: At what point does an idea take enough form to be considered an invention that can be protected? Many times there is an invention that could be defined and protected well before one might suspect.
There is a maze of information available online for new inventors, much of it very good and much of it highly questionable. Therefore, it is not surprising that aach and every week I receive multiple general inquiries from newbie inventors. Although the inquiry can take many different forms, the question inevitably boils down to something like this: “I have recently come up with an idea that I would like to pursue. I have never invented anything in the past, and I have no idea where to start. Help!”
The first step toward commercializing an invention and making money from it is typically to pursue the patent path. On the road to a patent there are many mistakes that inventors can make unwittingly, some of which will ultimately make it impossible to obtain a patent.
With that in mind, here is a list of the top 5 mistakes inventors make, followed by discussion of what you should do to move your project forward in an appropriate and responsible way.
As you can probably imagine, over the years I have had the opportunity to work with many inventors, the majority of which were first time inventors, or inventors who were for the first time attempting to protect their own invention for their own company. I have found that those who are serious are also capable of meaningfully participating in the preparation of their own patent applications. These folks are motivated, but they simply do not know what to do, or exactly how to do it, and they are afraid to mess things up by trying to do something themselves that is over their head, not because they are not smart enough, but rather because this patent stuff is really hard and very complicated.
As I tell students in the patent bar review course I teach, you could not – drunk and on a bet – come up with a more screwy patent system than we have in the United States. The rules are complex, and unnecessarily so in many (if not most) situations. For example, do you know how long “a month” is? I bet you think you do, but I bet you haven’t a clue how long “a month” is considered to be under the rules in place at the USPTO. See Do You Know How Long A Month Is?
Although a patent application is not a sales pitch per se, most inventors will find it quite helpful to list as many descriptive objectives of the invention as is possible. As a general rule you should, however, stay away from laudatory language and puffery (e.g. “the best gadget known to man” or “the perfect solution” or “using this tool is unquestionably the choice any professional would make”). When you puff the tendency is to skimp on the descriptive details, which are essential to an appropriate patent application. Further, is anyone really likely to take your word for it being “the best”? That is why infomercials demonstrate the functional capabilities of an invention. In a patent application you need to describe the functionality and leave the selling to the salespeople later.
By way of example, many times inventions are not one of a kind, but rather they are improvements upon existing solutions. In this situation it is common that the advantage of the new invention lies in that it is cheaper to make, easier to use, more efficient, less noisy, easier to clean, more durable, stronger, faster, more resilient, etc. etc. These are things that you should include in your disclosure, but frequently this type of patentably relevant information is not conveyed with as much detail as possible and appropriate.
All too often inventors and entrepreneurs spend so much time creating that they have their head down, plowing forward, focusing only on the day to day operations associated with inventing and growing a business. Almost without fail, inventors know very well what they have invented and what they plan to do, but they have a terrible sense of what their invention could be. Just the other day I had a conversation with an inventor who thought we might not be understanding his invention because the first draft of the patent application seemed to miss the simplicity of his invention. Our job as patent attorneys is to not only try and protect the invention presented, but to work with the inventor to figure out the full glory of what the invention could be and what it could evolve into.
A patent application should certainly protect what the inventor is doing and what they want to do, but remember that in order to get a patent you do not have to produce a working prototype. You just need to be able to explain the invention with sufficient detail so that others skilled in the relevant technology area could both make and use the invention themselves without having to engage in undue experimentation. What is “undue experimentation” is a topic for another day, but suffice it to say that invariably what the “invention” is from a patent perspective is much broader than what an inventor thinks they have, and that is one critical reason (among many) why if you can afford to hire a patent attorney or patent agent you are always going to be better served by doing so and will wind up with much broader protection than doing it yourself.
How to Write a Patent Application is a must own for patent attorneys, patent agents and law students alike. A crucial hands-on resource that walks you through every aspect of preparing and filing a patent application, from working with an inventor to patent searches, preparing the patent application, drafting claims and more. The treatise is continuously updated to address relevant Federal Circuit and Supreme Court decision impacting patent drafting.
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