Director's Forum: A Blog from USPTO's Leadership
Friday Sep 16, 2016

Five Years of Patent Pro Bono Success

Guest blog by Will Covey, Deputy General Counsel and John Kirkpatrick, Patent Pro Bono Coordinator

Five years ago, President Obama signed the America Invents Act (AIA) into law, bringing sweeping changes to the U.S. patent system.  In addition to those major changes, other aspects of the AIA focused on leveling the playing field for inventors and entrepreneurs.  Today, we want to talk about one of those aspects, Section 32.

Section 32 provides that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) “work with and support intellectual property law associations across the country in the establishment of pro bono programs designed to assist financially under-resourced independent inventors and small businesses.”  In doing so, Congress acknowledged “the importance of individuals and small businesses to the patent system and our national culture of innovation.”

The ink had barely dried on the President’s signature when the pilot Patent Pro Bono Program officially launched in Minnesota, as a collaboration between the USPTO and LegalCORPS, a nonprofit legal resource center based in Minneapolis.  By late summer 2013, the first patents had begun issuing from the program, and multiple other programs were being established throughout the country.  Further direction from the President’s Executive Action dated February 20, 2014, prompted the USPTO to appoint a full-time Pro Bono Coordinator and designate additional resources to establish programs across the country.  Today, there are 20 programs that provide coverage for the entire United States, with many patents already issued and new applicants being accepted every day.

In every patent, there’s a story. Take for example Travis Kelly, from Backus, Minnesota.

Travis invented a simple but effective device to take the guesswork out of home door installations.  He couldn’t afford to hire an attorney and had filed a provisional patent application on his own.  After finding out about the pro bono program, he applied and received legal representation from volunteer attorney Kate DeVries Smith.  His patent issued in 2014.  Today, Travis and his wife Jennifer run a small business, JenTra Tools.  They’re selling thousands of units per year, and providing jobs and generating revenue in their community.

Then there is Deborah Campbell, from Grand Junction, Colorado, who after years of designing and prototyping, developed a manual sushi-making machine that can churn out rolls in just two minutes.  She received pro bono assistance from the law firm of Merchant and Gould through Mi Casa Women’s Business Center in Denver.  Having just received her patent this past May, Deborah plans to go into production and sell the device.

Glenn Vogel, a custom metal worker and father of three from Evergreen, Colorado, also received assistance through Mi Casa.  In 2015, thanks to volunteer attorney Aaron Kraft, he patented a customizable wine storage rack and saw his revenue increase by 20 percent.

The Patent Pro Bono Program offers patent legal professionals a way to give back to their communities in a structured and proven system.  The program also helps establish lasting relationships between inventors and attorneys and agents that can prove valuable for both in the future.

But it’s not just inventors, attorneys, and agents who benefit.  When inventors enlist the help of attorneys or agents, their applications tend to be more complete and meet statutory requirements, thereby enhancing patent quality.

As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the AIA, we’d like to acknowledge the numerous individuals who have worked behind the scenes to make this program an overwhelming success.  For many of them, from partners in the first firms to sign on, to the USPTO employees who traveled the country promoting the program, this was a unique opportunity to make a difference in the lives of independent inventors.  In just five years, the Patent Pro Bono Program has launched dreams.  In the next five, it will only continue to help turn new dreams into reality.

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