Archive for the ‘Definitions’ Category

What “First-to-File” Means for You

Keyboard button with the word "learn" on it There’s been a lot of talk about the new Patent Reform Act of 2011. Congress has been talking about reforming the patent laws for a number of years now and earlier this year got to work on the latest round of revisions. Although they had discussed some really exciting changes, the actual law that passed was disappointingly modest. However, one of the most talked-about changes did make it into the new law – the move from first-to-invent to first-to-file.

First-to-Invent meant that if you invented something and a competitor filed an application for that exact same invention before you filed your application, there was a court proceeding you could undertake to prove you invented first (it was called an interference).

First-to-File means that if you invent something and a competitor filed an application for that exact same invention before you filed your application, you don’t get to patent your invention.

This might sound like bad news. But the reality is that interference proceedings are actually terribly expensive, time consuming, and challenging to win. Most companies don’t have the resources to undertake what’s effectively a small law suit. If you were a large company with over 500 employees and significant resources, you might have had a budget for interferences. But on average, over the last ten years about 100 interference proceedings are started every year – contrast that with an average of 210,000 patent applications getting filed every year. So not even large companies operating in a great economy were making use of this process with any great regularity.

A lot of people, unaware of the costs and the high burden of proof, have the illusion that a first-to-invent system would have protected them against competitors who can file applications more quickly. I’d say we’re better off with a more honest system that doesn’t hold out this kind of false hope. Developing a valuable patent portfolio is hard enough without that.

Anatomy of a Patent Application

Posted on May 11, 2011 by

We’ve previously looked at the anatomy of different types of patent claims. But, like the claims, the application itself is also not as intuitive to read as we might wish. So let’s take a look at the anatomy of a typical software patent application.


Anatomy of a System Claim

Posted on April 6, 2011 by

Keyboard button with the word "learn" on it As we discussed last time, claims are the moral equivalent to the property description and plot plan in a real estate transaction that specify the boundaries of a parcel of land – to truly understand what intellectual property is actually covered in an issued patent, you must look to the claims.

There are a couple of different categories of claims. Last time, we looked at method claims – a set of steps that describe how to do something inventive. If a competitor is to infringe the claim, they must perform each of the steps in the claim. A system claim provides a different approach to protecting the invention. Instead of protecting the steps taken to execute an inventive process, we protect the novel components that carry out those steps. In addition to protecting truly novel aspects of the widgets that the invention relies on, the system claim provides a way of protecting the invention in the event that a competitor doesn’t actually take each of the steps listed in a method claim but they’ve copied the novel widget.

Let’s take a look at the anatomy of a system claim:
System Claim Diagram

Next time, we’ll discuss how to read the rest of the patent.


Making Sense of Patent Claims

Posted on March 19, 2011 by

Keyboard button with the word "learn" on itIn a patent, the claims define what that patent actually protects. Claims are the moral equivalent to the property description and plot plan in a real estate transaction that specify the boundaries of a parcel of land – to truly understand what intellectual property is actually covered in an issued patent, you must look to the claims.

To the uninitiated, many patents in the same subject area look and feel the same, and it can be difficult to tell what exactly a patent covers and what it doesn’t cover. Whether you’re a start-up founder, a business lawyer working at a tech company, a software engineer, or really anyone working in an innovative area of technology, reading a patent can be a frustrating experience. However, understanding the layout of a typical claim can help make reading them more manageable.

The first thing to know is that the claims are found in the very back of the patent. Anything you read in the abstract or in the main body of the patent may or may not actually be a protected part of the patent. This main body, also called the specification, is supposed to inform the reader about the subject matter and provide details about making or using the overall invention. So the first thing to do when reading a patent is to flip to the very last few pages where the numbered claims are listed.

Patent-ese is like a computer programming language. And, as with most programming languages, it looks weird or just plain wrong if you’re trying to read it as if it was actually English. Let’s take a look at the anatomy of a method claim, a common type of claim:Method Claim diagram

Next time, we’ll look another common type of claim, the system claim.


What is a “continuing” app? Why file one?

Chess pieces Once you have filed a first non-provisional patent application and until that first application issues or is abandoned, you can file additional applications “related” to that first one. No matter when you actually file one of these “continuing” applications, everyone will treat the application as if you filed it on the same day as the very first application. The downside is that these applications have short life spans because they also expire at the same time as that first application. So why file one?

Smart use of continuations can save a company money. For example, you might file an extremely detailed first application that would support claims to a number of different aspects of your invention. You might choose to file the application with a small subset of the claims – perhaps the ones most relevant to your company at the time of filing – and then you only have to pay for the PTO to examine that focused subset of claims (and for you/your lawyer to respond to the PTO’s initial rejections). Once you get a patent allowed you’re 4-7 years out from time of filing and in a different place as a company, both from a funding perspective and from a business perspective. Maybe you’ve long since moved on to another venture – no need to have spent money on those other aspects of the invention. Or maybe the focus of your company has changed to one of those other aspects and you’re thrilled that you can now protect the methods / products that have become relevant to your business. Either way, you’ve bought yourself the time you need to make more informed decisions.

Additionally, filing continuations can be useful when licensing the technology. If you have continuations that are each directed to different aspects or implementations of the invention, you have much more granular control over what rights you license out. Say you have a patent that supports X, Y, and Z, where Z is the least relevant to your business model. You may want to license out Z to a company that is going to be able to use Z and send you substantial royalty fees – but you may not want to enable them to compete with you in areas X and Y. Continuations can help you do that.

What is a provisional?

Keyboard button with the word "learn" on itWhat is a provisional application? This is a frequently asked question and is often accompanied by “What’s a non-provisional?”, “Why would I file one or the other?”, and “What are they good for?”. In future posts, we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of provisional applications and at those accompanying questions. But first I want to share with you some basic definitions.