Patents Q&A

Who Should Be Responsible for Patents in a Company?

Businesses usually assign primary responsibility for patents and patenting of the company’s new inventions to a particular person or department. But who should have that responsibility? There is really no right or wrong answer. Different companies handle this differently. Though there are some things to consider that may suggest the best way to assign responsibility for patents.

If a company is active enough with patents, it may have a dedicated intellectual property (IP) department or group with in-house patent attorneys taking primary responsibility. However, the question dealt with here is really how to assign responsibility for patents in the absence of dedicated in-house IP staff.

There is a Range of Possibilities

First off, let us take a brief look at the possibilities. Responsibility for patents could be given to any of the following departments that exist in many companies:

  • Engineering/Research & Development (R&D)
  • Legal (including an IP group within legal)
  • Finance/Accounting
  • Sales & Marketing

Responsibility can also be assigned to individual people in a company, often an executive, officer, or in-house counsel. These people might be the heads of the departments listed above. In smaller businesses, we could add to that list the CEO, president, general manager, or a member-owner of a limited liability company (LLC).

Assigning primary responsibility does not mean other departments are excluded from patent decision-making. And sometimes budgetary allocations for patents might be split between different departments, such as allocating some or all patent-related fees to engineering/R&D’s budget while a legal department maintains responsibility for overseeing day-to-day patenting activities. Inter-departmental committees can also be formed.

Key Considerations

The ideal way to look at where primary responsibility for patenting should be placed within a company is to look at what will best achieve the company’s overall objectives and goals. Those will not always be the same. For some companies, filing as many patents as possible is the goal. For others, minimizing overhead and cost-cutting is more important than patents. There are endless possibilities. Though in many situations, the company’s goals will not explicitly address how patents fit into the picture. Figuring out how patents might advance larger company goals is usually part of those very responsibilities. But there are a few recurring issues that may influence who should have primary responsibility for patents.

First, consider typical patent expenses as a proportion of a company’s overall budget, and the anticipated volume of patent activity. In small companies, the cost of seeking even a single patent may be substantial compared to other expenses, whereas in a large multinational company any individual patent has an insignificant impact on a company-wide budget. This tends to affect how (and how much) responsibility is delegated. The volume of patenting is also important. This is both a matter of the cumulative budget needed for patent activities but also the likely workload that supervision of a patent portfolio presents to the responsible person or department.

Intra-company rivalries may influence assignment of patent responsibilities. Different departments may compete against each other for resources and budget allocations. Responsibility for patenting might be seen as a way to exert control over certain budgetary issues. This has the potential to produce dysfunctional situations. One department with responsibility may try to under-utilize patenting in order to effectively (if somewhat surreptitiously) re-allocate budget resources elsewhere. Is that in line with company-wide goals? Consider the possibility and likelihood of this occurring when assigning these responsibilities.

Another important consideration is bandwidth. It makes little sense to assign patent responsibilities to a person or department with no time or capacity. This responsibility shouldn’t be like an unfunded mandate. Inaction due to lack of time is also a recipe for loss of patent rights. And yet, bandwidth concerns should, in theory, be temporary ones. In the long term, other considerations should take precedence. A company should eventually address bandwidth limitations through hiring or other organizational changes to allow the best-situated person or department the time and resources to meaningfully execute the company’s goals around patenting.

Individual temperament can be a significant factor. For example, an individual with a strong anti-patent bias may not be the ideal choice to lead a program intended to obtain the maximum number of patents. More generally, some people may not understand patents or legal issues well. This is often an is/ought problem. Some people act based on how they think the legal system—and patent examination in particular—ought to work, rather than based on how it actually operates. For instance, some engineers struggle with the ambiguities inherent to patent law and legal issues in general, and can get frustrated with legal matters that depart from the sort of scientific and engineering precision they expect elsewhere. As another example, some business people have ideas about legal definitions of what constitutes “prior art” or “obviousness” that are simply contrary to existing law. And on top of all that, some people simply lack the objectivity needed to oversee patent matters effectively.

Having a firewall between supervisors of patent matters and named inventors can be worthwhile. Particularly where bonuses are paid to inventors, conflicts of interest can arise when named inventors oversee their own patent applications. The main issue is that persons supervising patent applications sometimes show more interest in their personal bonuses than company goals. For instance, they may pursue futile or worthless patents or questionably name themself as an inventor simply to personally obtain a patent- or invention disclosure-related bonus. Having a policy in place that prohibits self-supervision of patent matters might be helpful, especially in larger organizations. Though, on the other hand, self-dealing is not always a problem, and in the absence of inventor bonuses this may be a minor concern.

What Is Most Common and Why?

Most commonly, responsibility for patents is assigned to (a) a legal department, (b) an engineering/research & development department, or (c) a patent committee specially formed to handle patent issues. Some combination of these possibilities is also common. In small companies where there are no “departments” as such, having the CEO or other high-level executive take responsibility is typical.

Because patents have a legal character, and often require working with an outside patent attorney specially licensed to practice patent law, it is very common to have an in-house legal department have responsibility. This way you have in-house lawyer(s) talking to outside patent lawyer(s). In-house counsel will understand legal concepts and may already be managing relationships with other outside attorneys. Also, having in-house legal departments involved can help funnel patent-related expenses through existing legal billing and expense tracking systems that the legal department may already be using in other contexts.

Because patents involve inventions with a technical or scientific character, it is also very common to place primary responsibility with an engineering or R&D department. Inventions typically arise out of that department anyway. So it often makes sense to have that department’s personnel closely involved. For similar reasons, engineering/R&D personnel might also have the greatest interest in patents and the technology involved. In this sense they are more likely to see this responsibility as an interesting opportunity rather than an unpleasant chore. Inventors also often take pride in their inventions, so they and their immediate co-workers are usually motivated to see them protected by patents.

Lastly, having some kind of specially-created patent committee involved is another common approach. This committee might have only partial responsibility, such as responsibility for reviewing invention disclosures and determining whether or not to proceed with patenting or to manage patent portfolio maintenance and annuity payments. An advantage of these committees is that they can allow for cross-disciplinary teams that encompass personnel from multiple departments. These committees can be a great way for companies to help keep everyone in alignment. These committees can also help alleviate concerns that an engineering/R&D department will be overly eager to patent everything and anything. Though such committees really only make sense when a company is of a certain size.

Less Common Approaches

Various companies have assigned responsibility for patents to nearly every possible department or person. Not all companies are organized the same, and their resources and ongoing business activities might suggest different approaches. Not every company has an in-house legal department, for instance. Though a common reason for assigning responsibility outside of a legal or engineering/R&D department is simply bandwidth and capacity to take on the responsibility.

Sometimes patents are overseen by finance/accounting. The reasoning sometimes goes that patents are an overhead expense, so finance should keep those in check. Another more subtle reason is that finance often understands revenue sources and therefore might represent a relatively neutral arbiter of what sort of patenting expenses make sense for the business. On the other hand, finance personnel may not grasp the technology involved in patents as well as others, or simply may not have much interest in patents.

Other times marketing or sales oversees patents. This might make sense if a company is heavily involved with trademarks and only occasionally has patentable inventions. Another reason is that some companies see patents as protecting their sales activities—rather than their inventions in the abstract—and so they give sales & marketing say. On the other hand, sales & marketing personnel sometimes have a negative or ambivalent attitude toward patents. That is partly because inventions rarely originate with them. It is just as common, if not more common, for sales & marketing to see patents as taking budget allocations away from their own projects, like advertising campaigns. Lastly, sales & marketing personnel frequently have expectations that are not aligned with actually-existing patents laws. This may take the form of unrealistically expecting a broad legal monopoly without regard for the quid pro quo disclosure of an invention.

The main reason that other departments like finance/accounting, sales & marketing, etc. rarely have responsibility for patenting programs is that these departments tend to be further removed from relevant facts and information. To the extent that there are disputes over who should have a say over patent matters, having a committee that includes personnel from these other departments can be a good compromise that allows for input and shared responsibility without creating awkward disconnects or glaring inefficiencies. For instance, having a committee to approve individual invention disclosures and/or to set high-level patenting goals can be worthwhile when coupled with passing responsibility for day-to-day management of patent applications and granted patents to a specific department or individual.

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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.