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Wednesday Mar 23, 2022

The USPTO’s Patent Pro Bono Program: Promoting equity in innovation since 2011

Blog by Drew Hirshfeld, Performing the Functions and Duties of the Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO

Patent Pro Bono graphic

America is a nation of inventors and entrepreneurs, and the USPTO is committed to protecting their creations through patents and trademarks. However, the cost of hiring legal representation can be a barrier for some inventors when applying to protect their intellectual property. To address that barrier, the USPTO helped create and coordinates the Patent Pro Bono Program (PPBP).

Since its launch in 2011 as part of the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, this nationwide network of independently operated academic and nonprofit organizations (regional programs) has matched more than 3,400 under-resourced inventors and small businesses with volunteer patent practitioners, and helped them file over 1,800 patent applications. Practitioners have donated more than 84,000 hours of legal services. The PPBP is available in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, through 21 independently operated regional programs. It has been very popular with inventors and entrepreneurs, who receive assistance in preparing and filing a patent application, and with patent professionals, who are able to give back to their communities by volunteering their services.

The goals of the PPBP align with the knowledge that our nation’s greatest strengths are our diversity and creativity. To more effectively promote the progress of science and the “useful arts,” as promised in the “Progress” or “Patent” clause in article 1, section 8, clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, we must broaden the innovation community. All Americans should have the opportunity to patent their innovations, trademark their brands, seek investments to grow their enterprises, and engage in emerging sectors of the economy that need diverse insights and perspectives.

However, a recent USPTO study found that only 12.8% of all inventors named on U.S. patents are women. At the same time, a Harvard study revealed that white individuals are three times more likely to invent than Black individuals. The reasons for these disparities are complex, and the solutions rarely are simple. However, these imbalances have significant, measurable, and far-reaching effects on our economy.

In calendar year 2021, regional patent pro bono programs collected voluntary demographic information from applicants, and the results revealed some insightful trends. Of the applicants who responded to the survey, 30% identified as African American or Black, 1.5% identified as Native American, and 5.6% identified as either Asian, Pacific Islander, or Hawaiian Native, which are all higher than existing proportions in the U.S. population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census data. In addition, 41% self-identified as female and 14% self-identified as Hispanic. These results show that these demographic groups are using pro bono resources and programs in substantial numbers to protect their intellectual property.

To participate in the PPBP, inventors and small businesses must meet certain financial thresholds and other conditions. The eligibility criteria vary for each regional program, but in general, there are three basic requirements:

  • Income: Your gross household income should be less than three times the federal poverty level guidelines (specifics may differ based on the regional program).
  • Knowledge: You must demonstrate knowledge of the patent system in one of two ways: (1) have a provisional application already on file with the USPTO, or (2) successfully complete the certificate training course (certificado de formación en español).
  • Invention: You must be able to describe the particular features of your invention and how it works.

To learn more about the PPBP, watch this short series of videos or this recorded webinar, and to find a program near you, visit the Patent Pro Bono page of the USPTO website.

Based on the success of the Patent Pro Bono Program, we recently launched a Trademark Trial and Appeal Board Pro Bono Program, and will very soon be launching a Patent Trial and Appeal Board Program. These programs provide free legal assistance to under-resourced inventors and businesses involved in patent and trademark proceedings before the Boards.

We are always looking to assist more small businesses and entrepreneurs by growing the PPBP. If you’re a patent practitioner who’d like to join this effort by volunteering your legal services, find your state on the Patent Pro Bono coverage map and fill out an online volunteer application form found on the program’s website. For any other questions about the program, please contact And we hope you explore other USPTO initiatives aimed at increasing equitable participation in the innovation ecosystem, including the Council for Inclusive Innovation (CI2) and our economic relief programs.


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