Winter's featured article

Free Legal Services for Inventors

Dan Kolker, Office of Innovation Development

You have a great idea for a new product, you’ve worked out the kinks, and your invention is complete. You’ve heard that patents are important to protect your invention, but you have no idea how to go about applying for one. What’s the next step?

Applying for a patent is a complicated endeavor. In order to be granted a patent, not only must your invention itself be new and nonobvious, but the application must meet certain legal requirements (for example, it must disclose the invention in enough detail for someone in the field to reproduce it) and follow procedural requirements, such as detailed instructions on preparing drawings. Finally, a patent application must include claims setting forth what you, the inventor, consider to be the invention. Since the patent claims define the legal rights of a patent, it is important to craft these carefully.

But if you’re an inventor, you probably aren’t an expert in patent law and United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) procedure. You might want to hire a registered patent lawyer or agent. The office maintains a searchable list of active registered practitioners for this purpose. Keep in mind that In order to represent an inventor before the office, a person must be registered with the USPTO as a patent agent or patent attorney.

The USPTO also supports two programs that provide free legal assistance in the form of patent application preparation, filing, and prosecution services to inventors who cannot afford an attorney or agent. One of these programs, the Patent Pro Bono Program, seeks to match eligible inventors with volunteer patent practitioners. The other program, the Law School Clinic Certification Program, allows law students to provide the services under the supervision of an approved supervising attorney, who is a registered patent practitioner and has experience practicing before the office. All volunteer practitioners, students, and faculty-supervising attorneys operate independently of the USPTO. 

The Patent Pro Bono Program attempts to match inventors with registered patent agents or patent attorneys. These practitioners volunteer their time without charging the inventor. However, the inventor still must pay all fees that are required by the USPTO; these cannot be paid by the practitioner. The Patent Pro Bono Program consists of multiple independent pro bono programs, each of which covers a state or a few adjacent states. These regionally operated programs work to match qualified inventors with an attorney or agent. You can find more details about the Patent Pro Bono Program, including a map of the United States with links to each regional program, on the program’s website.

The Law School Clinic Certification Program consists of independent law school clinics that provide free legal services to qualified inventors. However, an important difference is that law students provide the services under the supervision of an experienced law school supervising attorney. Over 50 law schools currently participate in the program. In each of the clinics, students are granted limited recognition to practice directly before the USPTO. The students receive real-life experience working with inventors to prosecute their patent applications by meeting with the inventors, drafting patent applications, and responding to office actions, all under the oversight of an approved supervising attorney affiliated with the law school clinic.

Some of the participating law schools only accept clients from their home state or from a small region of the United States, whereas others accept clients from across the country. In addition, some of the participating law school clinics provide legal services only on trademark matters, some provide legal services only on patent matters, and some provide legal services for both patent and trademark matters.

These programs were recently profiled in our monthly Inventor Info Chat series.

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Questions or Article Suggestions?

The USPTO gives you useful information and non-legal advice in the areas of patents and trademarks. The patent and trademark statutes and regulations should be consulted before attempting to apply for a patent or register a trademark. These laws and the application process can be complicated. If you have intellectual property that could be patented or registered as a trademark, the use of an attorney or agent who is qualified to represent you in the USPTO is advised.