Patents Q&A

What Are Common Patent Drafting Mistakes?

Preparing new patent applications can be complicated. Patent applications in the U.S. and most other countries undergo pre-grant examination. So a patent application must be sufficient to establish patentability to the satisfaction of a patent examiner. And if the goal is to create enforceable exclusive legal rights in an invention, and it usually is, then there are many legal considerations that impact coverage and validity. In sum, while there are challenges to obtaining any patent at all, not all granted patents are equal.

What follows is a discussion of some of the most common mistakes when drafting a utility patent application. These are the sorts of mistakes frequently made by inventors preparing and filing an application themselves (“pro se”) without the aid of a patent attorney. These issues can also arise when applications prepared in another jurisdiction enters the USA and there are differences in the law and practices in the two jurisdictions.

A discussion of common mistakes in design patent applications is available elsewhere.

Focusing on the Old Rather than the New

One common mistake, especially with applications self-prepared by inventors, is to focus on the prior art and what is old and already known rather than on the new invention. Put another way, the mistake is to devote excessive effort to describing what the invention is not rather than what it is. While it is permitted to discuss the background of the invention, and sometimes this is helpful to highlight what is new and different about the invention, this provides little benefit when it takes up too large a proportion of an application.

As an example, criticizing existing products for being “too slow” and stating that it is desired to have an improved product that works faster might be helpful for context. But unless the application further explains how better results and faster speeds are achieved, such a discussion of the background context has fairly limited value. Also, if the discussion of what was known is far more detailed than the discussion of what is supposedly new, this can have the undesired effect of suggesting that the inventors have yet to adequately develop the invention to a point of being patentable.

Omitting How It Works, or “Black Box” Gaps

A big mistake is failing to describe what the new invention is and how it works in sufficient detail. Often this means describing what is new too superficially so that it is no more than a plan for future invention or a mere statement of a problem to be solved or a desired result. Modern patent laws a premised on a quid pro quo: in exchange for disclosing how to make and use an invention, exclusive rights are granted for a limited time. But you cannot get exclusive patent rights by withholding the “secret” of how to make and use the invention.

Occasionally, this problem arises by placing important aspects of the invention in a “black box”. If key steps, ingredients, or structures are withheld from the disclosure contained in a patent application, then the patentability requirement of enablement (35 U.S.C. § 112(a)) is not met.

Stated more generally, it is necessary to provide a disclosure that enables someone of ordinary skill in the art to make and use the full scope of the invention as defined by the claims. The more one claims, the more one must enable. So a more limited disclosure might support more limited claims. It is therefore necessary to have complains that are commensurate with the scope of the disclosure and not overbroad.

One helpful thing (good) patent attorneys do is that they explain how inventions work in a understandable way. The technology may still be complicated. So the explanatory disclosure might not be entirely “easy” to read and understand. But inventors are sometimes able to devise working inventions without being able to translate that technology into words and drawings of the sort required for patent applications. It may be because they take some things for granted, or sometimes they might not even fully grasp what is different about their new invention from what was known before.

Confusing Ambiguity with Breadth

While a broad claim is not necessarily ambiguous merely due to breadth, the reverse is problematic. Ambiguity does not lead to a broad scope of protection in a patent. This is a issue even experienced patent attorneys wrestle with and sometimes get wrong. By far, the most common source of trouble is the use of functional language or results-based claiming to try to obtain preemptive exclusive rights over significantly more than what was actually invented. This is one of the trickiest and most contested aspects of patent law and policy, so any brief discussion is hardly comprehensive.

But, as one example, using coined terminology and nonce words — often with vaguely functional connotations — without providing a sufficiently clear definition sometimes leads to impermissible ambiguity. Generic structural terminology as understood in a given technological field is often not the same thing as coined terminology not adopted into use generally in that field. All too often, patent language is specifically drafted to avoid the use of generally-understood terms, which invites ambiguity problems. But you cannot benefit from avoiding accepted meanings if others cannot reasonably determine the scope of a claim due to intentional ambiguities.

There are many other examples as well, sometimes the result of errors and inconsistencies. For instance, if a claimed inventions rests on a parameter like an angle between two things, or a specific concentration of an ingredient or chemical element, or performing a process at a particular pressure, then it may be important to explain how such parameters are measured or evaluated. The percentage of a material by weight or by volume might be quite different depending on the density of all the materials involved. Or the pressure might be measure in relative or absolute terms. And the location or direction in which an angle is measured might matter.

Not Understanding Terms with Special Legal Meaning

There is a concept (sometimes referred to as the Dunning-Kruger Effect), that those who are incompetent in a given area tend to be ignorant of their incompetence. In patent law, certain language has special legal significance. Rather than being given their ordinary, everyday meaning, using certain words in certain contexts can be legal “terms of art” that have a special meaning. The paradox is that unless these special meanings in patent law are known, they might be inadvertently or unintentionally invoked.

Perhaps the most frequent errors of this sort arises with means-plus function claiming (35 U.S.C. § 112(f)). Under this format, an element of apparatus is claimed as “means for…[performing a stated function]” or “[functional descriptor] means for…[performing a stated function].” Courts have (somewhat controversially) said that if a claim limitation is drafted in the same format as a means-plus-function limitation and merely replaces the term “means” with a nonce word like “module”, “mechanism”, “element”, or “device”, means-plus-function interpretation may still apply. This type of claiming is permitted but is given a special interpretation: it literally covers only the disclosed corresponding structure, material, or acts, plus their known equivalents. Such an interpretation might be narrower than intended. It also might raise problems if the corresponding structure is not clearly identified and disclosed.

Irrelevant Disclosure

Including a lot of unnecessary information just because it is available can be another problem. It wastes time and effort, and time is money when preparing patent applications. It can also obscure what is important and lead to longer (and more expensive) prosecution and examination after initial filing. Of course, knowing what sort of information is relevant and what is not is something that requires knowledge and experience. It can also be a matter of understanding the closest prior art, which is the next point.

Not Understanding the Closest Prior Art

Patentability largely depends on being novel and nonobvious over what was already known. So, the catch is that to understand what was patentable it is unavoidably necessary to understand what the closest prior art is. Most of the time, that can only be understood by conducting a patentability search and analysis. One catch is that applicants often wish to avoid the expense of a patentability search. This often leads to false economy, by requiring extensive post-filing efforts and expense to mitigate the problem of having not prepared a better initial application.

Knowing the closest prior allows a better patent application to be prepared—one that articulates what differs from the closest prior art (and why that matters). For instance, a patentability search and analysis might suggest that additional technical information (another data table, figure, etc.) needs to be gathered for inclusion in a new application in order to sufficiently explain why the invention makes a patentable improvement. This may be the case where the prior art already achieves a similar result but in a different way, or where the prior art includes all the same parts but has them arranged or connected in a different way.

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Patents Q&A

What Are Common Mistakes in Design Patent Applications?

There are certain requirements and interpretive frameworks that apply U.S. design patent applications that may not be intuitive. Many of these U.S. standards also differ significantly from the rules the apply to industrial design registrations in other countries. What follows is a guide to some common mistakes and misunderstandings around design patents and applications.

Additional information about acceptable practices for design patent applications can be found in the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office’s (USPTO’s) design patent application guide and in the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure (MPEP) Chapter 1500.

“Engineering” Style Drawings Treated Unfavorably

Designers may create computer-aided drafting (CAD) drawings to document their designs. These often follow engineering conventions, including the use of “tangent” lines to show the boundaries of a curved surface. However, U.S. design patent practice relies on the use of surface shading lines or stippling . This is any entirely different style and approach than familiar engineering standards.

Shading lines or stippling that contrast with the rest of a drawing are used to show curves, tapers, and other three-dimensional (3D) contours in design patent drawings. The arrangement and spacing of straight shading lines is commonly used to indicate the character of curvature or contouring. Shading lines that are not straight may also be permissible. Surface shading lines can be broken/discontinuous and light/thin to differentiate them from lines indicating surface ornamentation and/or the ornamental shape of an article itself. They must be used sparingly, with as few in number as practicable.

Other characteristics can also be represented by shading lines. For instance, equally spaced shading lines arranged parallel to each other are used to indicate flat surfaces. Shading lines or stippling can be used to distinguish open areas (like holes) from solid material as well. Also, light, full shading lines indicate transparent materials.

The following is an example used in the USPTO’s design patent application guide to illustrate straight, parallel shading lines with their spacing using to show curved edges of a sink. These shading or contour lines are discontinuous, each having a long unbroken segment plus a short, dot-like segment slightly spaced from an end of the long segment. In this example, other discontinuous shading lines are used to illustrate flat surfaces too.

Drawing of a sink showing use of spaced, straight shading lines in design patents
USPTO example of use of shading lines in design application drawings

The following is an example of non-linear (curved) shading lines used to illustrate 3D curvature of a vehicle mirror. These shading or contour lines are discontinuous to distinguish them. These types of shading lines are appropriate for illustrating more complex 3D shapes. In this example, broken (dashed) line(s) further illustrate the boundary of the claimed design, meaning that only a portion of the depicted article is part of this claimed design.

FIG. 1 of U.S. Pat. D427,554, showing use of shading lines to illustrate 3D contours of a vehicle mirror
FIG. 1 of U.S. Pat. No. D427,554

The following examples are drawn from a case about alleged infringement of two design patents covering a trash can and a recycling bin. Red arrows indicate lines whose meaning was disputed by the parties. The court construed the patents’ engineering-style drawings with curvature boundary tangent lines to mean visible ornamentation in the form of seams, paint, or something else that appears as actual lines on the trash can or recycling bin rather than merely conveying the boundaries of 3D contours where they transition to flat surfaces.

Annotated views with red arrows and blue circles labeling disputed lines in two trash can/recycling bin design patents
Annotated verisons of FIG. 1 of U.S. Pat. No. D644,807 for a “Slim Open Trash Can” (left) and FIG. 1 of U.S. Pat. No. D729,485 for a “Dual Recycler” (right) with red arrows and blue circles indicating disputed lines in Simplehuman LLC v. iTouchless Housewares and Prods., Inc., 506 F. Supp. 3d 830 (N.D. Cal. 2020)

The court reasoned that because the purported drafting technique in the examples above made it impossible to distinguish contour changes from ornamental lines, and because such ambiguous usage raises indefiniteness concerns that should be discouraged, a “plain meaning” interpretation was adopted, finding that the disputed lines are lines (that is, ornamental features in the form of seams, paint, or something else that appear as actual lines on the articles). The patentee’s arguments that the disputed lines were shading or contour lines merely meant to demonstrate the general shape of the trash can/recycling bin were rejected.

The case later settled, and was dismissed without a final ruling on infringement. But the patentee would undoubtedly have lost under the court’s construction that the disputed engineering-style lines meant visible ornamental lines — neither the patentee’s own products nor the accused products had any features that resembled visible lines in the relevant locations.

The Title is Limiting

U.S. design patents are directed to ornamental features of useful articles. Significantly, they cover only particular articles that embody the claimed design, and not simply a “view” or “look” in the abstract (as is the case for industrial designs in some other jurisdictions). The words of the claim — which always says “as shown and described” — will limit the scope of the exclusive patent legal rights. Courts have said that the title of a design patent is limiting, where it names a particular type of article. And that is the case even if the drawings of a design patent do not illustrate any particular article. So the title and other words in a design patent application should be chosen carefully.

In the example reproduced above, a figure from a design patent shows a “Y”-shaped, rattan wickerwork-style pattern formed by a web of material. None of the figures in the patent illustrated the design being applied to a particular article, only the pattern formed by a portion of material shown in isolation. But the title of the patent is “Pattern for a Chair”. A court ruled that the patent’s claim was limited to a pattern for a chair, as specified in the title, and a lawsuit against a seller of a basket (not a chair) with a similar pattern making up the basket/bin walls was dismissed for failure to state a plausible claim of design patent infringement.

Sole figure in App. Ser. No. No. 29/491,550 (now U.S. Pat. No. D979,060) for a “Lip Implant”
image of prior art "stump" tool
Image of prior art “stump” art tool considered in In re SurgiSil, L.L.P., 14 F.4th 1380 (Fed. Cir. 2021)

Limits on claim scope by the title or other text might help distinguish prior art. In the example images above, a design patent claim for the “ornamental design for a lip implant” was limited to lip implants. A court said that a prior art tool made of tightly spiral-wound paper called a “stump”, used by artists for smoothing and blending large areas of pastel, charcoal, or pencil, was directed to a different article than the claimed lip implant. Therefore, the prior art “stump” did not affect the novelty of the claimed design even though their shapes were essentially the same.

The title of a design application can also limit the prior art available as “comparison” art in a three-way comparison of the claimed design, an accused product, and the closest prior art for an infringement analysis. Such a comparison can potentially highlight differences (or similarities) in the overall appearance that might not otherwise be apparent to an ordinary observer. To qualify as comparison prior art, a prior-art design must be applied to the article of manufacture identified in the claim.

Partial Claims Are Permitted

It is possible to depict an article while using a partial claim that addresses the design of only a portion of that article. Structure that is not part of the claimed design, but is considered necessary to show the environment in which the design is associated, may be represented in the drawing by broken lines. This includes any portion of an article in which the design is embodied, or applied to, that is not considered part of the claimed design. For instance, when the design is for surface ornamentation, the shape of article to which the design is applied can be shown in broken lines.

example design patent application drawings showing broken lines to indicate a partial claim to only surface ornamentation on a jewelry cabinet
Example of partial claim to only a surface pattern on a jewelry cabinet article, for USPTO design patent application guide

Moreover, unclaimed things may be shown in broken lines for the purpose of illustrating the environment in which the article embodying the design is used. For instance, a claimed design might be for the hood of a truck, only, with the rest of the truck shown in broken lines as unclaimed environment.

Unclaimed subject matter must be described as forming no part of the claimed design or of a specified embodiment thereof. A boundary line may be shown in broken lines if it is not intended to form part of the claimed design. Applicant may choose to define the bounds of a claimed design with broken lines when the boundary does not exist in reality in the article embodying the design. It would be understood that the claimed design extends to the boundary but does not include the boundary.Unclaimed subject matter must be described as forming no part of the claimed design or of a specified embodiment thereof. In this situation, broken (dashed) lines are used to define the boundary of a design patent application claim. This practice in the U.S. departs from that of some other countries where partial claims are not permitted.

Additionally, structure that is not part of the claimed design, but is considered necessary to show the environment in which the design is associated, may be represented in the drawing by broken lines. This includes any portion of an article in which the design is embodied, or applied to, that is not considered part of the claimed design.

USPTO Will Often Not Permit Changes in Claim Scope by Amendment

One of the most controversial aspects of U.S. design practice is that changes in claim scope are usually not permitted. While partial claims are permitted in design applications, and while claims in utility patent applications are routinely permitted (even to remove limitations), since 2013 the USPTO does not ordinarily permit lines to be changed from solid to broken (dashed) to broaden the claim, or the reverse to narrow the claim. Instead, applicants are typically forced to file a separate application that changes the scope of the claim. While examiners have some discretion to permit drawing changes, such as to fix discrepancies by changing lines to broken ones, and the text of disclaimers or statements in an appendix might have some impact, those things are not certain to be effective under current law and practice.

This practice of precluding changes in design application claim scope extends an already controversial position taken by a U.S. appeals court that reads a so-called “written description” possession requirement into the U.S. patent statutes (relating to enablement) against their plain language and grammar. Note that there is also a clear incentive for the USPTO to require new filings instead of amendments in order to generate more filing fees.

Multiple Embodiments are Sometimes Permitted

It is possible to include multiple embodiments in a single U.S. design application. However, restriction practice still applies and may require dividing different embodiments/designs into separate applications. Because design applications can have only a single claim, multiple embodiments must be patentably indistinct to remain in a single case.

On the one hand, because design patents have a 15-year term from grant, later-filed and later-granted divisional applications will expire later. This might be desirable for some patentees. On the other hand, a restriction determination also has an impact on the scope of exclusive rights. For instance, if the applicant elects one embodiment but declines to pursue an unelected embodiment in a divisional application, the unelected/abandoned embodiment will effectively be surrendered and dedicated to the public. These considerations emphasize the need to think through the implications and potentially commit to filing multiple applications when multiple distinct design embodiments are involved.

Drawings Must be Definite and Enabling

Drawings in a design patent application must be consistent with each other. Discrepancies between different views can create indefiniteness and/or lack of enablement issues. For instance, if certain features are shown in one view but omitted in another, this may make it unclear what design is really being claimed. The use of inconsistent drafting techniques in different drawings can also lead to similar concerns. For instance, discrepancies in the use of shading lines, stippling, and/or broken lines can detract from required clarity. Particularly for highly complex illustrations, it is important to carefully review the drawings to ensure that they are consistent.

A frequent issue is when there are holes, cavities, protrusions, or the like and their depth or height is potentially uncertain in plan or elevation views. Sometimes examiners may require cross-sectional views to show the depth of such features. But clarifying sectional views cannot always be added after initial filing without impermissibly adding new matter–instead a new continuation-in-part application might be necessary.

Mixing Photographs and Line Drawings is Not Permitted

Black and white line drawings are preferred and ordinarily required in U.S. design applications. However, photographs can sometimes be used, particularly where there is surface ornamentation that is not reproducible in line drawings. But it is not permitted to have both photographs and line drawings combined in a single design patent. It is possible to include a mix of photographs and line drawings in a new U.S. design application, which might have significance for priority claims or divisional filings, but the drawings must be amended and limited to one or the other type before grant. If photographs are included as informal drawings in a new application, then a disclaimer included in the specification or on the photographs themselves should be used to disclaim any color, surface ornamentation, logos, written matter, etc. that forms no part of the claimed design.

Color Can be Claimed

Use of color presents many opportunities for procedural problems and well as unintended impacts on the scope of claimed design patent rights. Color can be claimed in a design patent application. However, the use of color drawings (including color photographs) requires filing a petition and paying a petition fee to have color drawings accepted. Also, there is a requirement that the specification include the following statement:

“The patent or application file contains at least one drawing executed in color. Copies of this patent or patent application publication with color drawing(s) will be provided by the Office upon request and payment of the necessary fee.”

Instead of using color drawings, an alternative is to use black & white line drawings lined for color in accordance with the drawing symbols in MPEP § 608.02 (and reproduced in the USPTO’s design patent application guide). Essentially there are particular line patterns usable to represent specific colors. If this is done, the application must state “The drawing is lined for color.” The specific colors lined in the drawing(s) may also be identified in the specification for clarity, as a kind of legend that explains the lining patterns from MPEP § 608.02.

USPTO drawing symbols for draftsmen
USPTO design patent application guide “Symbols for Draftsmen”

Also, if color photographs are initially submitted as informal drawings (to later be replaced with formal drawings) and the applicant does not consider the color to be part of the claimed design, a disclaimer should be added to the specification as follows: “The color shown on the claimed design forms no part thereof.” The USPTO will consider color an integral part of the disclosed and claimed design in the absence of a disclaimer filed with the original application.

Appendices Are Permitted

Although not specifically discussed in MPEP Chapter 1550, the USPTO’s design patent application guide, or reported court cases, the USPTO currently permits design applications to include an appendix. The appendix is never published in granted design patents. An appendix can include text statements, such as a purported reservation of the right to change solid lines to broken lines or vice-versa, additional views or embodiments, which could be in the form of line drawings, photographs, or both. The main purpose of an appendix is to potentially provide support for a greater range of amendments and/or continuing applications after initial filing.

Applicants will sometimes not include an appendix because they are unaware that it is possible to do so. After all, the USPTO does not expressly discuss them in any of its regulations or procedural guidelines. Courts have not definitively ruled on the permissible use of design application appendices, however. Yet design examiners generally allow applicants to include and rely on them and generally do not object to their use.

Functional Aspects Are Not Protected

Sometimes design patent applicants wrongly believe that a design patent will cover functional aspects or a general idea. They do not. The type of subject matter that can be claimed in design patents is different from utility patents.

Design patent protection is limited to protection of ornamental aspects of a useful article. Purely functional aspects or a broader general design concept are not protected. Where this becomes less clear is where design features are only partly functional, and they contribute at least some minimal ornamentation to the overall design. In those situations, the functional aspects limit the scope of protection in the overall design without completely precluding protection of the minimally ornamental aspects. Also, anything dictated by function, no matter how aesthetically pleasing, cannot be protected by a design patent.

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Patents Q&A

How Should Invention Harvesting Be Conducted?

An important first step in obtaining patents is to identify potentially protectable inventions. The process of gathering up candidate ideas that might be the basis for new patent applications is sometimes termed invention harvesting. But that is an informal term. It generally connotes affirmatively investigating research and development efforts to draw out aspects that might be patentable. The following discussion explains when this sort of effort is worthwhile and how to go about it.

Who Should Consider Invention Harvesting?

There are two basic requirements in terms of who should consider invention harvesting, plus an important practical consideration. The first basic requirement is some desire to pursue a patent. Only companies that might want to pursue patents need to consider invention harvesting. For instance, budget constraints or company policy might mean that patenting is unlikely. The second is activity that comes reasonably close to what is potentially patent-eligible and patentable. For instance, if there is absolutely no technological or engineering activity underway, efforts to identify inventions might not be worthwhile until circumstances change.

In practical terms, however, invention harvesting is typically a process that takes place within companies of a significant size. When there are multiple people or departments with different responsibilities, there is the possibility that inventive activity might be taking place somewhere that has not yet come to the attention of other people who make decisions about patenting. The basic idea is that “invention harvesting” is a proactive way to bring people or teams with different responsibilities together to help them meet shared or company-wide objectives. It rests on an understanding that simply expecting scientists and engineers to step forward when they believe they have an important invention may not capture all patentable inventions.

When Should Invention Harvesting Take Place?

Generally speaking, invention harvesting should be considered around the time that inventions are sufficiently developed to be “ready for patenting” but prior to any public disclosure or commercialization.

“Ready for patenting” means the invention is sufficiently developed that the inventor(s)—with the aid of a patent attorney—can describe how to make and use it. Vague goals and undeveloped business objectives are not enough if they amount to little more than a plan or hope to invent something in the future. The same goes for high-level business plans to meet some kind of customer demand without any definite ideas of how to achieve any specific results—those things are not sufficient. But anything that has been “reduced to practice” in the form of a working prototype is likely sufficiently developed, even if there still is ongoing testing and development work.

There can be public disclosure, public use, and on-sale bars to patenting. This makes it important to consider any potential inventions before any part of a new product is disclosed to someone else, from potential customers to potential business partners or even industry trade groups. This is true even though some countries, like the U.S., have patent filing grace periods.

Key product development stages or milestones, such as engineering “design reviews”, can be excellent times to proactively assess potentially patentable inventions. Also, any planned non-confidential disclosures or sales activities also make good prompts to consider patenting before those disclosures or sales activities take place. But there is no single right time to consider patenting. In fact, it may be a question that needs to be revisited over time.

What Should Invention Harvesting Activity Look For?

Of course, patentable invention might arise at different levels of generality and at different times during development. A product as a whole might not be patentable but specific features of it might be.  Those narrower patentable aspects might not be identifiable at the outset of new product development and may only arise later on after considerable work has been completed.  On the other hand, investment in research & development (R&D) is no guarantee that any patentable invention will arise. But the catch is that if you sometimes will miss patentable inventions unless you look for them. From that perspective, it is not a waste of effort to consider patentability even if nothing patentable is identified yet.

How Should Invention Harvesting be Conducted?

Some key foundations of invention harvesting are education, communication, and having resources in place to retain and act upon information gathered. 

Education starts with emphasizing a desired to consider patenting. It also means cultivating, or bringing in by way of retaining an outside patent attorney, a reasonable awareness of patent law. Inventors might not have a good understanding of patent law and therefore may misunderstand what can (and cannot) be patented, for example. Education also means informing patent counsel about what kind of patenting strategy is desired from a business perspective. Some inventions might be more challenging than others to patent. There is an element here of establishing a comfort level with risk tolerance: do you want to aggressively pursue patent applications including ones that might not succeed, or take a more conservative approach and only file patent applications that seem to have a high probability of success?

Communication is about bringing the right people together to talk about potentially inventive activities. Sometimes, inventors may be very humble or shy and not willing to step forward and promote their own work. As another example, an invention may be patentable even if its inventor does not subjectively consider it to be “important”, such as where the inventor applies an idiosyncratic standard of “importance” that does not align with current laws around patentability. Sometimes having an explicit “invention harvesting” session with patent counsel is worthwhile, in which potential inventors talk about their ongoing work in an open-ended way to try to tease out potentially patentable inventions.

Resources like having a plan to document inventions and giving people or committees responsibility to approve patenting are really the lase piece of the puzzle. Having some sort of “invention disclosure” form to document potential inventions in writing is worthwhile.  Such a form can not only provide a written record of the substance of a potential invention, it can also collect supporting information. Such supporting information can include the names of the potential inventor(s), any planned commercial release or public disclosure date(s), relationships between the invention and business initiatives, and other information that can be useful when making patent filing decisions and reporting on company activities. 

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Patents Q&A Trademarks

What Is a File Wrapper?

A file wrapper, synonymously called a file history, is the written record associated with a given patent or trademark application and any resultant granted patent or trademark registration. It is the official record for a given matter. Generally, the file wrapper includes more information than is formally published by a patent or trademark office in patents, published patent applications, or trademark registration certificates.

The sorts of materials maintained in file wrappers, the period of time those materials are retained, and the level and ease of public accessibility to them varies by jurisdiction. For instance, in the USA, patent application information is kept confidential initially and generally only made publicly available for published applications and granted patents, with pending applications normally published 18 months from the earliest filing or priority date (subject to potential non-publication requests). (35 U.S.C. § 122).

How & Where to Obtain a File Wrapper

In the past, file wrappers were only available as hard copies in on-site storage at official offices. Today, many patent and trademark offices make at least some file wrapper contents available online—though whether online versions are the official ones or not and whether the online versions are complete or not are questions that can vary by jurisdiction. File wrapper materials are generally also available as certified copies that must be specially ordered (and may have to be physically mailed). Usually a given file wrapper must be obtained from the relevant patent or trademark office that maintains it, although centralized file wrapper access for a few global patent offices is available.

The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) has “Patent Center” and Trademark Status and Document Retrieval (TSDR) online portals. Very old materials are not always available through these portals. Moreover, some materials are not accessible through Patent Center to the general public, like copies of non-patent literature. The USPTO also has a separate Certified Copy Center that allows officially-certified copies of file wrappers or specific documents from them to be ordered, upon payment of required fees. Certified copies of file wrapper may include materials that are not otherwise publicly available, and include official seals and signatures attesting to their authenticity.

The European Patent Office (EPO) has a European Patent Register with file wrapper information. These materials are also accessible via the Espacenet portal, by clicking the “Register” link within a given record.

There are also separate systems for file wrappers for PCT international patent applications and Madrid Protocol trademark registrations. These are the Patentscope and Madrid Monitor online portals maintained and administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). It is also possible to order certified copies of Madrid international trademark registration materials from WIPO, or for applicants to order certified copies of PCT applications from individual PCT receiving offices.

Additionally, Global Dossier portals provide access to file wrapper contents from a number of the most active patent offices worldwide, together with machines translations. Global Dossier has gone by other names in some jurisdictions, like “One Portal Dossier” in Japan and South Korea. Because of the availability of machine translations, these portals can be highly convenient for gathering information about foreign patent applications in other languages. But some documents may not be immediately available through these portals, either due to technical glitches or database update lags.

Why Might You Need a Wrapper?

There are many reasons a file wrapper might be consulted. For instance, they can provide a record of the prosecution history that may inform the status or interpretation of something related to a given patent or trademark. A record of official actions like rejections/refusals and/or applicant amendments or arguments might be found in the file wrapper. Particular documents within a file wrapper might be relied upon for various purposes, or might be needed for submission in other contexts. For instance, in U.S. patent law, the file wrapper might be relied upon for claim construction, doctrine of equivalents analysis, inequitable conduct inquiries, and more.

File wrapper materials in informal, online formats might be sufficient for many purposes, and may be free and easy to access. Information materials might be used for competitive intelligence purposes or as a reference example for work on an unrelated matter, for example. Certified copies or an entire file wrapper, or one or more selected documents from it, might be required for certain formal uses, such as to make priority claims in foreign applications or to be relied upon in legal proceedings where authentication of the materials is important.

The legal important of a file wrapper often depends on the substantive law of the relevant jurisdiction. Under U.S. patent law, prosecution history estoppel or prosecution disclaimer found in a file wrapper might arise and bind the patentee. But many other jurisdictions do not have any such patent prosecution estoppel doctrines, making file wrappers less formally significant. And, moreover, the USPTO does not accept formal file wrapper estoppel in trademark matters.

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Patents Q&A Trademarks

What Is Prosecution History?

For patents and trademarks, the term “prosecution history” refers to the back and forth between an applicant and the patent or trademark office. It includes submissions by the applicant, starting with an original application and extending though any amendments or arguments the applicant might later make during official examination of the application. It also encompasses official communications, like office actions, and the particular rejections, objections, refusals, and other notifications that may be contained in them. Oral communications like interviews are a part of it too.

But “prosecution history” refers to more than just a set of documents or particular communications. It is a blanket or umbrella term that refers to all the actions and events involving the patent or trademark office from the time a new application is filed to through grant or registration and even beyond that to post-grant or post-registration actions involving corrections, maintenance or renewals, and the like. So, even if a particular document is purged or deleted or never made part of the permanent record, such a document and the events surrounding it are still part of the prosecution history.

Prosecution histories are important for many reasons. As reflected in “file wrappers,” they are often consulted to understanding the status of a pending application or of a granted patent or issued trademark registration. They can provide insight into why a patent or trademark registration was issued in a particular form, or why a application was abandoned. Sometimes events or materials from the prosecution history of a given patent or trademark registration can even impact the scope or validity of enforceable legal rights.

The prosecution history tends to matter most where prosecution history estoppel or prosecution disclaimer might arise and legally bind the applicant later on. In the U.S., it tends to be more important for patents than for trademarks. Many other countries have different laws that make prosecution history less consequential.

Have an invention you would like to patent? Have a brand you would like to register as a trademark? Concerned about infringing someone else’s intellectual property? Is someone else infringing your IP? Need representation in an IP dispute? Austen is a patent attorney / trademark attorney who can help. These and other IP issues are his area of expertise. Contact Austen today to discuss.

Patents Q&A

How Can I Find Patents with the USPTO’s Patent Public Search?

The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) makes granted U.S. patents and published U.S. patent applications publicly available. Patent Public Search is its open-access patent searching platform, available online to anyone free of charge.  It exists with two different interfaces:  Patent Public Search Basic (PPUBS Basic) and advanced search. Both allow U.S. patents and published applications to be searched simultaneously. Coverage is limited to only U.S. patent documents.

screenshot of Patent Public Search landing web page
Screenshot of the USPTO’s Patent Public Search landing web page, with links to the “Basic Search” and “Advanced Search” interfaces

There are official training guides and frequently asked questions (FAQs) available for Patent Public Search. These provide detailed guidance about how to use the tool, particularly the advanced features. What follows are basic explanations of how to fetch individual patents from the USPTO and find either PDF images or selectable/copyable text from U.S. patents and published applications.

Screenshot of the USPTO’s Patent Public Search FAQs

Some information about how to structure and perform patent searches is available in the article “Patent Searching: (Almost) Everything You Need to Know” and in the book Patent Freedom to Operate Searches, Opinions, Techniques, and Studies.

Using the Basic Search Interface

The Basic (PPUBS Basic) search interface allows granted U.S. patents and published patent applications to be fetched by number (“Quick Lookup”), and allows some keyword-based searches (“Basic Search”). But it returns only PDF copies. 

Screenshot of the USPTO's PPUBS Basic search interface
Screenshot of the USPTO’s PPUBS Basic search interface

This interface is simple and mostly self-explanatory. Although, if desired, consulting the USPTO’s basic search interface overview may be helpful. One important thing to note is that the search input fields allow only a single word or number in each and a maximum of two keywords can be used. So, for searches using two distinct keywords, it is necessary to use different input fields for each of them and to select a Boolean operator (AND, OR, or NOT).

Screenshot of an example search result for a “Quick Lookup” of U.S. Pat. No. 10,000,000 via the USPTO’s PPUBS Basic search interface

The Basic interface is most useful for fetching PDF copies of granted patents and published patent applications when the patent or publication number is known. The trade-off is that its functionality is rather limited for subject-matter searches and “full text” is not available for returned results.

Using the Advanced Search Interface

As the name implies, the advanced search includes much more advanced search functionality than the “Basic” interface.  However, the advanced interface is highly esoteric and non-intuitive. It may not even display properly on all computers. For instance, primary the input field near the upper left sometimes appears hidden when the tool is opened on computers with small display screens, like laptops. 

Screenshot of the USPTO’s Patent Public Search Advanced Search interface, showing the results of a search for U.S. Pat. No. 10,000,000 using the “.pn.” field code

The Advanced Search interface allows queries of up to three distinct databases simultaneously:

  • US-PGPUB — containing U.S. pre-grant patent application publications from March 2001 onward;
  • USPAT — containing full-text granted U.S. patents from 1970 onward plus allowing classification and patent number searching from 1790 onward; and
  • USOCR — containing text-searchable optical character recognition [OCR] scanned pre-1970 U.S. patents

Fetching a particular patent or published application by number is surprisingly difficult with the “advanced” interface.  Use of the “.pn.” (for patent number) code is highly unforgiving and the period at the end is required. The USPTO has said it is possible to manually type in the URL and replace “00000000” with the desired patent number in order to reach it directly though an “external search”. Use leading zeros to fill a 7-digit entry if the patent number is 6 or less digits (for example, “0654321”). And do not forget the period at the end!  Unfortunately, Patent Public Search modifies this URL as displayed in a browser once it is visited so there is no simple way to bookmark it. Also, expect some frustration because these “external search” URLs do not seem to consistently work (especially if Patent Public Search was previously opened in your browser).

Annotated screenshot of Patent Public Search Advanced Search Interface "Document Viewer" “T / [camera icon]” button to toggle between text and PDF image views
Annotated screenshot of Patent Public Search Advanced Search Interface “Document Viewer” “T / [camera icon]” button to toggle between text and PDF image views

The advanced interface is currently the only way the USPTO provides “full text” of published patent documents.  PDF versions are also available by clicking the “T / [camera icon]” button at the top left of the “Document Viewer” panel that normally appears at the right-hand side of the screen along with the text (annotated in the figure above).  Toggling that button allows switching between text or PDF image displays of a given patent document. 

Other commands are available by clicking on rather confusing and esoteric icons in the “Document Viewer” panel, such as various quotation mark buttons that allow forward and backward searching of citations.  Note that references cited listed on the front page of granted patents are omitted from the “full text” display in Patent Public Search, meaning that “full text” is not truly available for all text of a given patent document. Foreign and non-patent literature citations will appear only in the PDF image of the granted patent and thus are not selectable to copy-and-paste them. 

Annotated screenshot of Patent Public Search Advanced Search Interface "Document Viewer" quotation mark buttons to forward and/or backward search U.S. patent documents from the "References Cited" section of a granted U.S. patent
Annotated screenshot of Patent Public Search Advanced Search Interface “Document Viewer” quotation mark buttons to forward and/or backward search U.S. patent documents from the “References Cited” section of a granted U.S. patent

If you plan to conduct extensive searching by subject matter, using keywords and/or classification codes, you may want to consult the USPTO’s official Patent Public Search training guides and FAQs as well as the “Help” menu tab inside the interface’s “Search Results” panel. The “Search Overview” Quick Reference Guide and the FAQs may be the most useful places to start, followed by “Searchable Indexes” (that is, field code) list and the “Help” menu tab inside the interface. Some content found in the “Help” menu tab of the “Search Results” panel inside the interface (such as explanations of proximity operator syntax) does not appear anywhere else at present—quite unhelpfully!

Also be aware that Patent Public Search uses search string syntax that is unlike commercial patent searching tools. Familiarity with other search tools (other than the USPTO’s old PubEAST and PubWEST tools) will not translate into any understanding of how to use Patent Public Search.

Alternatives: Patent Center, International Tools, and Proprietary Tools

An alternative way to reach a particular U.S. patent or published application in USPTO databases is to utilize the Patent Center interface. Patent Center’s main interface provides a simple query field where you can enter a U.S. patent or published U.S. patent application number.  Once the results of a given query appear on screen, there are links available to the Patent Public Search text versions of the given published application and granted patent (if any) under Patent Center’s “Application Data” tab.  The button with the “T/[camera icon]” label can be clicked to toggle between a text view and a PDF image of the patent document in Patent Public Search. While navigating to patent documents through Patent Center requires many clicks, using it may be easier than using Patent Public Search.

Another alternative for fetching PDFs of U.S. patents and published patent applications is to use a privately-operated site or a foreign patent office site with international coverage. There are many proprietary patent searching tools that require a subscription. But there are also open-access or semi-open-access tools available online as well that contain at least U.S. patent documents, including:

Compared to many other online patent searching tools, Patent Public Search has substantial usability flaws. Although it has more coverage and capabilities than it predecessors PatFT and AppFT, it is much less user-friendly and eliminated some features of the old systems. Tabbed browsing to open multiple documents at once is prohibited by the “advanced” interface, for instance. Even compared to other open-access platforms, like Espacenet, Patent Public Search is harder to use. It is even inferior in many ways to the “Delphion” tool from the early 2000s (which was converted into one of the leading proprietary platforms and is no longer open-access). Proprietary searching platforms are still generally the best option. Although subscription fees will be prohibitive if you only perform patent searches occasionally.

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Patents Q&A

How Should U.S. Patent Applications Be Formatted for Filing in DOCX Format?

The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) requires that non-provisional patent applications filed on or after January 17, 2024 be submitted electronically in Office Open XML “DOCX” file format in order to avoid a non-DOCX official surcharge. This means applications can still be filed electronically in PDF format, or by paper, but doing so will require payment of an additional official fee that varies according to the applicant’s entity size (initially $400/$160/$80 for large/small/micro entities).

What Types of Applications Must be in DOCX Format?

The DOCX filing requirement and non-DOCX surcharge currently applies only to the following U.S. patent applications:

  • Utility patent applications (non-provisional) under 35 U.S.C. § 111(a)
    • Includes direct U.S. filings with a Paris Convention foreign priority claim
    • Includes PCT “bypass” applications

However, the non-DOCX surcharge currently does not apply to the following types of U.S. patent applications:

  • Provisional patent applications
  • Design patent applications
  • Plant patent applications
  • PCT national phase entries

Additionally, only certain portions of an application are covered by these requirements. In order to avoid the non-DOCX surcharge, the specification/description, claims, and abstract must all be in a compliant DOCX format. However, the drawings of an application do not need to be submitted in DOCX format. PDF format can be used for electronic submissions of figures without paying a non-DOCX surcharge.

The applicability of the non-DOCX surcharge to U.S. applications filed in a language other than English under 37 C.F.R. § 1.52(d)(1) is still rather unclear. The USPTO has not yet specified if a DOCX copy of (i) only the English translation, (ii) only the non-English original, or (iii) both the original and translation is required to avoid the surcharge. Though the USPTO’s justification for implementing the non-DOCX surcharge would seem to pertain only to the English translation.

Potential Problems

When application documents are electronically filed with the USPTO’s Patent Center system in DOCX format, they are “validated” to create a new DOCX file and also converted into another format (PDF) by the USPTO with a proprietary conversion/rendering engine prior to submission. For instance, tracked changes strikethrough and underlining/underscore formatting are automatically removed as part of file “validation”. However, that “validation” and conversion process can produce errors. Yet it is the “validated” DOCX file as modified by the USPTO’s system that is considered the “as filed” version that the USPTO actually relies upon for subsequent actions, and not the DOCX file as originally uploaded. The original applicant-created DOCX file is discarded by the USPTO as part of the “validation” process, meaning the USPTO does not preserve the original source file in unaltered (pre-validation) form. Underlying these concerns is the fact that DOCX format is not platform-stable, and rendering of a given document varies depending on the configuration of the computer that opens it. These aspects of DOCX filing are the major sources of concern.

Experience to date has shown that USPTO-side DOCX conversion error issues are particularly significant for application documents involving:

  • Embedded mathematical equations created with a word processing program’s built-in equation editing functionality
  • Embedded chemical formulas created with a word processing program’s built-in formula editing functionality
  • Pseudo computer code with special indenting having technical meaning or special significance
  • Data tables, particularly if the table introduces landscape page orientation that varies from other pages with portrait orientation or if there is complex table formatting with special formatting like substantively meaningful indenting within table cells
  • Text in unusual characters/symbols or fonts, including Greek letters and/or uncommon accent marks with technical significance
  • Claim autonumbering using automatic numbered list formatting
  • Document creation using a word processing program other than a version of Microsoft Word® using a Latin-alphabet interface
  • Document creation or editing with word processing program plug-ins or macros for machine translations, automatic application content population, and the like, especially when such plug-ins lock application formatting or content against further editing

Many of these things are fairly common in patent applications.

The USPTO treats a DOCX version as the definitive record copy, potentially allowing later correction of USPTO-side conversion errors by filing a petition and paying an accompanying official fee (which is even greater than the non-DOCX surcharge). However, the USPTO has clarified that only the “validated” DOCX file as modified by the USPTO’s systems during the filing process are treated as authoritative and not the applicant’s pre-“validation” source version. The USPTO has also said that petitions requesting a correction more than one year after a DOCX submission will not ordinarily be granted (except that, if applicable, incorporation by reference of a priority application or filing a pre-English-translation version may provide a different, independent basis to request correction more than a year later). This time limit stems from the USPTO saying it may discard applicant submissions after one year, retaining only a USPTO-converted/validated file — although a later USPTO rule announcement indicated that applicant-generate PDFs will now be maintained as part of the permanent record and not discarded.

The USPTO has permitted a limited opportunity to file a back-up applicant-generated PDF version (“Auxiliary PDF”) of an application filed in DOCX format that can further allow for later correction of USPTO-side conversion errors. However, this Auxiliary PDF submission is being permitted indefinitely, during which time there are no extra official fees associated with an Auxiliary PDF or to petition to correct a USPTO-side conversion error based on such a PDF. And the USPTO has said that the Auxiliary PDF will be retained as part of the permanent record for a given application.

The possibility of conversion errors arising at all and the burdens of timely requesting corrections have the potential to negatively impact applicants. Moreover, the increased applicant burden to format DOCX files and proofread converted files is potentially significant unto itself. In effect, DOCX filing saves some effort and expense for the USPTO by pushing or shifting certain burdens and risks onto applicants. The supposed benefits to applicants are trivial or meaningless.

Best Practices for DOCX Filing

The following are some suggested practices for DOCX filing. These are meant to supplement or clarify USPTO-provided guidance and frequently-asked-question (FAQ) responses that often serve more as disingenuous “gaslighting” to deny problems filers have encountered and conceal unstated, de facto requirements than to provide reliable, practical, actionable guidance. While a document might be modified shortly before filing to meet minimum requirements or best practices, there can be risks and potential problems associated with doing so, including the introduction of inadvertent errors and potential file corruption. It also may be significantly more time-consuming to later modify an application document for filing than to prepare it in a compliant way from the start.

Top DOCX application compliance tips:

  • Use paragraph numbering (required), preferably paragraph autonumbering using at least four digits inside square brackets (“[0001]”)
    • Omit line numbering
    • Manual paragraph numbering is compliant but makes changes and amendments very burdensome
    • Often the lack of paragraph numbering in an existing application document is the single most burdensome formatting change required for DOCX filing compliance
  • Use a supported font, such as times new roman or arial (note that supported fonts are subject to change without notice)
    • There have been reports that some fonts the USPTO has explicitly identified as being supported are not actually fully supported
    • While a document-wide font change action can be performed, it may not alter font in embedded equations or formulas, inserted images with text or alphanumeric characters, headers and footers, and the like
  • Manually number claims with plain text numbers and avoid automatic “list” formatting using word processing program functionality
    • USPTO systems will sometimes modify claims in numbered list format to number each clause within a claim separately, disrupting intended claim numbering
    • Use of auto-updating cross-reference fields to indicate claim dependencies sometimes leads to errors in conversion, such as converting all claim dependency references to a prior claim from various numbers to zero (0)
  • Consider using an inserted image of a complex formula or equation rather than using one generated by a word processing program’s equation editor
    • Inserted images must have sufficient resolution to be readable
  • Provide figures in a separate document, rather than as pages of the same document containing the application text (specification)
    • Deletion of pages containing drawings can sometimes produce unintended changes to the formatting of remaining pages in a DOCX file, such as deletion of page numbering, changes to margins, and the like
  • Use an English version of the proprietary Microsoft Word® word processing program
    • There are variants of the DOCX format and other nominally DOCX compatible word processing programs will not necessarily create files that will be processed the same way by the USPTO’s proprietary conversion engine
    • Use of versions of the Microsoft Word® program intended for use with non-Latin chaccter alphabets may render differently on an English-language version of that program, such as removing inter-word spacing
  • Avoid use of highly customized application templates with macros or uncommon/complex embedded formatting settings
  • Simplify! In general, documents with simpler formatting are more likely to be compliant and less likely to result in conversion errors than more complexly formatted ones. Use complex, customized formatting only when strictly necessary or unavoidable

The USPTO provides DOCX-compliant utility patent application templates that could optionally be used. There is a basic template and another with essentially all possible application section headings identified. The basic template will like be more appropriate in most situations, with less extraneous section headings that are likely inapplicable. However, the use of automatic list claim numbering in these templates can still cause conversion errors and is not seen as actually compliant; thus, manual text-only claim numbering should be used in place of the list-style autonumbering in those templates.

While the USPTO asserts that DOCX file metadata is automatically removed from documents when filed, it is recommended to independently assess and remove any sensitive metadata before filing. Such metadata could relate to document revisions and the like. While such information is not necessarily harmful to an applicant’s interests, its presence in filed documents might possibly increase litigation discovery burdens if a resultant patent is ever enforced. In Microsoft Word, accessing the “File” > “Info” menu and utilizing the “Inspect Document” feature can help identify and then remove metadata. But be careful not to remove necessary document fields like page numbers appearing in footer margins.

One difficulty with identifying errors is that meaningful proofreading requires first uploading the DOCX file to the USPTO’s Patent Center and then reviewing a USPTO-converted file. While Patent Center provides some feedback about certain possible DOCX compatibility issues during the file upload and submission process, such automated feedback will never identify substantive content errors such as unintended changes to numerical values or technically meaningful formatting.

Non-DOCX Filing Alternatives

In some instances, electronically filing an application in PDF format and paying the non-DOCX surcharge may be more efficient than spending considerable time proofreading converted documents to check for errors. “Last minute”, urgent, or rush filings of applications with potentially problematic equations, formulas, data tables, text formatting, or the like may not allow sufficient time for proofreading, and may suggest PDF format filing and payment of the non-DOCX surcharge.

While an Auxiliary PDF can be filed without charge in addition to a DOCX file, it is still preferable to utilize a reliable DOCX file or pay the non-DOCX surcharge than to rely on corrections premised on the contents of the Auxiliary PDF and incur, at a minimum, the time and effort associated with correction requests.

Additionally, if the USPTO’s Patent Center system is unavailable and paper (hard copy) filing via express mail is required to meet a filing deadline or bar date, payment of official non-DOCX and paper-filing surcharges might be necessary.

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Agreements Copyrights Patents Q&A Trademarks

How Can I Correct An Assignment?

Assignments of intellectual property (IP) such as for patents, trademarks, and copyrights are sometimes signed and then an error is later discovered. This is often due to a clerical or typographical error or other inadvertent mistake. For instance, there might be a typo in the number identifying a given patent, patent application, trademark registration, or trademark application in a schedule listing many. It is possible—and beneficial—to correct an assignment to fix such errors, which can then allow correction of any prior recordation of the original assignment. But how can such a correction properly be made? There are a few different possibilities, including using mark-ups or creating a new corrective document.

Marking-Up and Approving Corrections

One approach suggested by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) (in MPEP 323 & 323.01(b) and TMEP 503.06(b)) and the U.S. Copyright Office (in Compendium 2308.1) for making corrections to an assignment is to have each of the parties conveying the property in question, that is, all of the assignor(s), make and approve corrections on the original signed assignment. This involves the following steps:

  1. Cross out the incorrect text or number (using strikethrough or a conventional proofreader’s delete/dele/deleatur mark through the text with a protruding loop)
  2. Write in the the correct text or number next to the crossed-out information (ideally immediately above it) using printed or typed lettering; use a caret mark or similar line or arrow to show the proper place of insertion, if helpful (a suggested practice if the only or best available space for newly inserted material is in a nearby area spaced from the crossed-out information, such as at a page margin)
  3. Have each and every assignor initial (or fully sign) and date the marked-up corrections; full signatures are also acceptable and are appropriate if multiple signatories have the same initials; if the assignee originally signed the document then the assignee should initial/sign and date the changes too

An example excerpt of a marked-up patent assignment document to correct an error on the original is provided below. In this example, the city of residence (Paris) of one inventor-assignor was incorrect and has been crossed out and the correct city name (Neuilly-sur-Seine) written immediately above it (using deleatur and caret proofreading symbols). Both of the two inventor-assignors (Joe Public/J.P. and Jane Doe/J.D.) have initialed and dated the marked-up change.

Scanned excerpt of example marked-up corrections of error on patent assignment with dated inventor-assignor initials
Excerpt of example marked-up corrections of error on patent assignment with dated inventor-assignor initials

An advantage of marking up the original assignment is that doing so leaves no doubt that terms of the original assignment are still effective. The mark-ups make explicitly clear what specifically has been corrected. The adjacent initials/signatures and dates also clarify who approved the corrections and when. With the error in the original corrected, the chances that anyone might later cast doubt on the assignment due to that error are reduced or eliminated.

The retroactive (nunc pro tunc) effect of the corrections to the date of the original transfer of rights is inherent in the nature of marking-up and initialing/signing (and dating) changes on the original assignment document. This might be significant if something occurred between the time the original was signed and the time the error was discovered and corrected. For instance, if the original assignment with the error was already recorded, making marked-up corrections on the original facilitates recording the corrected document while making clear what specifically has changed.

The USPTO and the Copyright Office do not expunge or delete the previously recorded document, but instead further record corrected document(s) while noting that it is a corrective recordation. Although, uniquely, the Copyright Office will allow substitution of a corrected assignment within ten (10) business days of the original submission.

Keep in mind, however, that many aspects of assignments are a matter of state (or foreign) contract law, not USPTO or Copyright Office administrative procedure or even U.S. Federal patent, trademark, or copyright statutory law. Under black letter U.S. contract law, and presumably that of most other countries, it is not permitted to unilaterally modify or alter a contract after it has been signed. That may make the original voidable and may even be considered forgery, unless the assignment expressly permits a particular change (like later inserting application filing details). But having initials/signatures next to the changes from all the parties that originally signed the assignment removes doubt about their recognition of an error in the original and the fact that the correction/amendment was later made with their knowledge and approval. Although any material changes negatively affecting rights of the assignee or others will merit further attention, despite assignor approval.

However, if an error is identified in an assignment document before all parties have signed or provided notice to the assignee, it is usually preferable to discard the erroneous draft and provide a new copy with all the errors corrected for signature. Marked up corrections are not needed in that scenario, because the assignment with the error was not yet effective.

Newly-Created Corrective Assignment

Marking up and approving corrections to the original assignment is not those only way to correct errors. An alternative approach is to create a new corrective assignment document and have it signed by all the parties (meaning at least all the assignors). Federal agency guidebooks, in MPEP 323.01(b) (for patent assignments), TMEP 503.06(b) (for trademark assignments), and Compendium 2308.1 (for copyrights), recognize the possibility of such an approach for correcting previously-executed assignments.

For instance, if errors in a signed assignment are lengthy/voluminous, there is little available space to mark-up corrections, or the number of signatories does not leave enough space to add all their initials and dates, then a preparing and signing a new corrective assignment might be preferable to mark-ups. But if the original assignment containing the error was already recorded, or there has already been some reliance on that original assignment, any new “corrective” assignment may need its terms written to explicitly be retroactive to the effective date of the original. It is helpful if the title is identified as a “corrective” assignment too—although more than just the title should be changed. But the effort to create a new corrective document might be greater than using mark-ups.

A retroactive assignment is called a nunc pro tunc assignment, which is latin for “now for then”. These are widely used to correct errors in a prior assignment. The USPTO’s electronic assignment recordation systems EPAS and ETAS even have a special option for these, allowing the earlier date to be specified.

The USPTO describes a nunc pro tunc patent assignment recordation request as “[a] request to record an assignment, which includes documentation of transactions which occurred in the past but have not been made a matter of record in the USPTO.” This description implicitly treats nunc pro tunc patent assignment recordations as being (only) for corrective, confirmatory, or supplementary assignments. It means such a recordation request normally requires attaching additional documentation supporting the earlier claimed date of transfer or assignment (that is, the effective date prior to the execution date on which the new assignment document was fully signed).

The USPTO describes a nunc pro tunc trademark assignment as “an assignment that was prepared recently and is being recorded now, but the actual transfer occurred in the past. It is a complete transfer of ownership of trademark rights from the assignor/ (conveying party) to the assignee/ (receiving party). Use this conveyance type if the document being recorded was prepared after the time when ownership was actually transferred and after the time it should have been prepared and recorded, and has a retroactive effect. The execution date is usually later than when the actual transfer of ownership occurred.”

Lastly, if an error is identified in an assignment document before all parties have signed or provided notice to the assignee, it is usually preferable to discard the erroneous draft and provide a new copy with all the errors corrected for signature. A nunc pro tunc assignment or other explicit terms to provide a new, retroactive corrective assignment are not needed, because the assignment with the error was not yet effective.

Standing Limitations on Retroactive Patent Assignments

Corrective patent assignments, when necessary, should be completed before commencing a lawsuit for infringement. Courts generally do not allow nunc pro tunc patent assignments to provide retroactive standing to sue for infringement. The execution date on which a nunc pro tunc patent assignment was signed—or the date on which the last signature was obtained if multiple parties sign on different dates—is normally the effective date that controls for matters affecting standing. According to one district court, this also means that any subsequent assignments in a chain of title that were executed before a corrective nunc pro tunc assignment require further corrective action as well, because other purported assignments downstream in the chain were ineffective when executed (nemo dat quod non habet — one cannot give what one does not have). Clearing up chain-of-title issues before bringing suit allows the intended plaintiff(s) to be named, averting a possible ground for dismissal of the lawsuit due to the absence of a necessary party.

But not all nunc pro tunc assignments implicate standing. Minor corrections and supplemental terms may be given retroactive effect. At least one district court has held that correcting a drafting error in a prior assignment with respect to identification of a patent intended to be assigned did not deprive the assignee of standing in a pending lawsuit. And the Federal Circuit has held that retroactively adding the right to sue for pre-assignment infringement does not affect standing.

Practical Tip

There is an old saying that the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago but the second best time is now. This provides a good analogy here. For assignments, the best way to correct them is to carefully check the information in them to fix any errors before they are presented for signature. In other words, be diligent and try to avoid errors from the start! That sometimes means verifying information provided by others, such as to ensure that legal names are used not nicknames or assumed names, corporations have not merged, dissolved, or changed names, addresses are current, etc. But the next best time to correct errors is as soon as they are discovered. Fortunately, there are ways to do that. Although doing so can become more difficult as time passes. For example, the original signatories can die, dissolve (if a corporation), or become uncooperative, and issues of standing can arise and later chain-of-title corrections might also become necessary that require additional corrective efforts.

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Patents Q&A

What Are Common Issues Around Software Patenting?

Patenting inventions based around software, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and the like presents a number of challenges. Of course, these types of inventions must be novel and non-obvious over what was already known (the “prior art”) to be patentable. That is no different for software patenting than for any other kind of invention. But software-based inventions frequently present concerns about patent eligibility as well as who is viewed as an inventor.

Software Patent Eligibility

Patent subject matter eligibility has been a highly contested area of patent law in recent decades. Because computers, software, and electronics in general have become widespread and the subject of considerable investment, patents on those sorts of technologies are potentially valuable. There are currently a large volume of computer software-related patent applications pursued every year.

Software-based invention patent eligibility is highly dependent on how the claims are written.  Attempts to obtain a broad “preemptive” (or we might say greedy or “odious”) patent monopoly that exceeds the quid pro quo of the inventor’s contribution to the useful arts raise the most concerns.  Today’s software patent eligibility debates tend to be veiled policy arguments about that quid pro quo balance. That is, how broad a monopoly (if any) should be awarded through a patent and how much (or little) must the purported inventor disclose to get it? These questions go to the heart of modern patent law and its origins when feudalism gave way to capitalism.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said “abstract ideas” are not patent eligible. This narrows the types of software-based inventions that can be patented.  There must be a substantial inventive concept beyond an underlying abstract idea. A trivial or superficial reference to something more concrete is not enough. It really has to be a technical contribution to the “useful arts”. Attempts to monopolize part of the economy simply by claiming to be the first to use computers, generically, is not enough. And a patent applicant simply agreeing to accept a monopoly over just one field of use for an abstract idea falls short of limiting patent claims a specific, patent-eligible inventive (technological) contribution.

In practice, this means a software-based invention consisting of only well-known concepts, mathematical calculations, data processing/manipulation/selection/presentation, what could otherwise be performed as purely mental steps, or the like plus merely generic computer hardware is generally not patent eligible.  Software that provides no more than an allegedly improved user experience is also generally not patent eligible. What makes software saleable is not always a technological improvement. Such an improvement should solve a technical problem rather than a non-technical one, and it should consist of more than just a business model or business plan that happens to involve computers. Claims for software-based inventions should accordingly capture the essential part(s) that make a technical achievement possible. A claim reciting only abstract result + generic computer components may be broad but it stops short of capturing an inventive concept necessary for patent eligibility — reference to generic computerization is considered insignificant post-solution activity.

Software-based inventions at the level of particular coding and/or specific hardware interactions tend to be narrower. This leaves open the possibility that someone else could avoid patent claims narrowly draw to such things. Such claims therefore potentially provide a less valuable monopoly. Often times disputes about patent eligibility, and complaints about the state of the law, are really about a refusal to accept narrower rights commensurate with an actual technological contribution (if any). It is a historical quirk that software became widely used around the time that social transformations led some people to consider greed to be “good”. That may explain why patent eligibility issues so often arise around software (and biotechnology)—even though greed and selfishness have always played a role in patenting so this is matter of degree. The volume of that kind of patenting rose in step with changes in certain social and moral values held by larger and larger segments of business people while the patent laws stayed the same.

Inventors and Software

Something that repeatedly comes up when dealing with software patents is a disconnect around who is the “inventor”. Sometimes managers, executives, or other higher-level employees setting out objectives and requirements view themselves as inventors of something patentable. Yet they rely on others to actually write software code that meets those objectives and requirements. Implicitly that view sees what the coders do as not being inventive. But is that accurate?

First, a bit of a detour. I have dealt with software-related technologies when performing patent freedom-to-operate or clearance studies to evaluate the risk of infringing an existing patent. A rather curious thing happened numerous times. Managers and supervisors would again and again evade or delay responding to inquiries seeking technical information sufficient to compare the configuration and operation of the proposed design against an existing patent. Eventually it became clear why. They did not know how the software was structured. That was assigned to lower-level employees. At times, this was even outsourced to temporary contractors who were no longer around. The managers and supervisors I spoke to did not want to review the source code to find the information I was seeking. Also, they were reluctant to admit that they did already not know what was in the code. This was perhaps embarrassment from not knowing what employees reporting to them had previously done. But also it seemed like a reluctance to admit that what lower-level employees and contractors had worked out in source code was more important for patent law purposes than what fell in the supervisors’ direct area of knowledge.

This anecdote about patent clearance analyses highlights a pragmatic issue around software patenting. Some people take a very hierarchical view that considers software coding and similar tasks to be routine and unimportant. Those efforts are taken for granted. What is valued is setting objectives and requirements. Such tasks are often something reserved for people in top positions within an organization. It is usually chain-of-command authority that permits certain people to make those decisions rather than their technical insights. But this type of thinking can be at odds with the patent laws. General objectives and requirements for software development that merely articulate desired results are often limited to the realm of abstract ideas. The technical achievements and inventive contributions that establish how the desired results are achieved might really be at the level of coding and/or detailed software/hardware interactions that improve computer functioning. But those things might have been devised by different people than those setting general requirements.

When the wrong people are in the room talking about an “invention” and directing patenting efforts there is a greater risk of resultant patent claims being directed to ineligible subject matter. The people who made technological contributions that solve technical problems need to be involved. If the only people with input are those who are “in charge”—with the authority to set high-level goals, requirements, and investments for a project—it is more likely that only patent-ineligible “abstract ideas” will be captured. Those people might not really know about the real patent-eligible inventive contributions. Navigating these hurdles may require candid, up-front discussions about what matters under the patent laws and potentially challenging assumptions about corporate hierarchies and individual contributions.

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Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.

Patents Q&A

What Patent Application Extensions of Time Are Available?

For U.S. patent applications, official communications from the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) may require a response by a particular deadline. Failing to respond will result in the application being abandoned. If more time is needed to respond, extensions of time may be available, with the payment of official extension of time fee(s). What follows is a brief explanation of how the USPTO handles extensions of time for responses involving patent applications.

The Basics of Response Periods and Availability of Extensions of Time

Statutes plus USPTO regulations and guidelines determine periods for reply and how those time limits are calculated for patent applications. These deadlines are based on the date an official communication is sent to the applicant. Office actions generally have a three (3) month response deadline (called a “shortened statutory period for reply”), extendable by up to three additional months upon payment of official monthly extension of time fees.  The maximum time period to reply, with extension, is six (6) months.

However, some other types of actions, such as responses to restriction/election requirements, responses to deficiencies notices, and appeal briefs have shorter deadline periods but may allow for longer extensions. Certain appeal deadlines and non-standard extension requests under 37 C.F.R. § 1.136(b) are subject to other limits or requirements than for ordinary extensions to respond to office actions, including a need to request leave for an extension within the original deadline period.

Issue fee payment deadlines after allowance are not extendable (37 C.F.R. § 1.311). This means an applicant has only three (3) months after a notice of allowance is sent to pay the issue fee.

Weekends and Holidays

If a USPTO deadline falls on Saturday, Sunday, or a U.S. Federal holiday, the applicant can take action by the next succeeding secular or business day. In other words, a deadline on a weekend or a holiday is automatically extended to the next regular business day without needing a request for an extension of time.

Requesting an Extension of Time

Extensions of time for responding to patent application office actions are essentially freely available. They can be obtained simply by making a request (petition) and paying necessary official fees at the time a substantive response is filed.  That is, in most cases, there is no need to request the extension of time within the original shortened period for reply (or otherwise in advance of a substantive response).  Instead, the applicant files a response after the shortened period of reply, but within the maximum 6-month period, and at that point concurrently files an explicit request for extension along with payment of the extension fees.

Ordinary extensions of time are calculated monthly, based upon the month in which a substantive response is made. The extension of time fees increase with each subsequent month of extension. This means the fee for a 2-month extension is more than twice the fee for a 1-month extension, and so forth. The fees do not stack. So a response in the second month of extension requires only the 2-month extension fee, rather than both the 1-month and 2-month extension fees. The official extension fees also depend on the applicant’s entity size.

Special Considerations After a Final Office Action — Advisory Action Practice

For final office actions in patent cases, the USPTO has a special procedure involving advisory action practice that can help avoid extension of time fees. This amounts to an optional further shortened period with certain benefits. Filing a response to a final office action within two (2) months potentially allows further action to be taken (within the maximum 6-month response period) without an official extension of time.  In practical terms, meeting the 2-month deadline is most useful when making after-final claim amendments but is perhaps less significant for other types of after-final actions. This requires some further explanation and context to fully understand.

Amendments after final are not entered as a matter of right. If an examiner believes that such an amendment raises “new issues” that require further searching, that is, an updated search for prior art, and there was no good and sufficient reason for not presenting the amendment earlier, then an advisory action is issued indicating that the amendment after final will not be entered. The applicant can then consider a request for continued examination (RCE), appeal, or other action to continue to seek a patent. However, such other possible actions are still subject to the original reply periods set by the final office action.

Because an advisory action does not establish a new response deadline, both the shorted and 6-month maximum response deadlines set by the final office action still apply. This means any further action after the end of the 3-month shortened statutory period requires an extension of time and associated fees. An important exception is that if the applicant responded by the 2-month deadline and the advisory action is sent by the USPTO after the shortened statutory period, the applicant can take action on that same day without an extension of time. This is essentially a limited exception to having to pay for an extension of time when an advisory action is issued.

The 2-month after final deadline is optional. An applicant can still take action within the shortened 3-month period without any extension of time, and after that with an extension of time. But submitting a claim amendment after final beyond the 2-month deadline increases the chances that extension of time fees may be required in order to take still further action—unless the amendment merely cancels claims, adopts allowable subject matter or an examiner suggestion, or corrects a minor error that does not require significant further examination.

Other Options Related to Deadlines and Extensions of Time

If a reply is not possible yet even with extensions of time, there may be other options to avoid losing rights. For instance, it is sometimes possible to file a new continuation application and allow the current one to go abandoned, although payment of extension of time fees in the parent case is still required if the continuation application is filed after the shortened statutory period. Moreover, if there was an error in the USPTO reporting an office action or the applicant did not receive it, or if the office action contains an error that affects the applicant’s ability to reply, filing a petition might be possible. An experienced U.S. patent attorney can advise about when and how such other options might be utilized.

Photo of Austen Zuege

Austen Zuege is an attorney at law and registered U.S. patent attorney in Minneapolis whose practice encompasses patents, trademarks, copyrights, domain name cybersquatting, IP agreements and licensing, freedom-to-operate studies, client counseling, and IP litigation. If you have patent, trademark, or other IP issues, he can help.