December's featured article
Pushing Ahead with Pro Bono Assistance
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) understands that one of the main barriers to getting a patent is cost-not necessarily the USPTO fees associated with patents, but the cost of hiring a skilled patent attorney to file and prosecute an application.
On September 16, 2011, President Obama signed the America Invents Act (AIA) into law. Section 32 of the AIA specifies that, "The Director shall 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." "Pro bono" is a Latin phrase meaning "done for the public good without compensation." With this directive, the USPTO effectively switched into full gear to implement its AIA Pro Bono Program, which it had already been developing in anticipation of the legislation. The president's ink was still drying when the first client signed with the pilot program in Minnesota. Since that date, the program has expanded to connect clients with volunteer pro bono attorneys across the country in multiple regional programs.
Let's back up for a moment. The LegalCORPS Inventor Assistance Program opened its doors in Minnesota on June 8, 2011, as a pilot program to test how pro bono assistance in intellectual property (IP) could work. The pilot encountered both success and obstacles, as expected, and quickly led to the issuance of two patents in 2012. Important lessons learned from the first program included how to efficiently and fairly screen applicants, as well as how to set up effective communication methods and educate inventors. This pioneering work led to the creation of a general outline for creating IP pro bono programs. The USPTO immediately began using the outline to reach out to IP law associations across the country in an effort to help them start organizing regional pro bono programs.
Fast forward to the end of 2012. Three new pro bono programs in Colorado, California, and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area have begun taking clients. Two additional programs in Texas and the New York City region are expected to begin operation before the end of the year. So far, more than 30 inventors and small businesses have signed for assistance with volunteer pro bono attorneys. In addition to the two patents issued through the Minnesota program, two other applications are currently on the verge of being allowed.
As the AIA Pro Bono Program moves forward at a swift pace, one of the most exciting developments is the establishment of an online portal for all applicants. On October 21, 2012, a national clearinghouse began accepting inquiries from inventors and small businesses interested in obtaining pro bono assistance. The clearinghouse, administered by the Federal Circuit Bar Association, is designed to be a single entry point for anyone interested in pro bono assistance and can be accessed through the Inventors Assistance pages of the USPTO website.
The new online portal is the easiest way to get started with pro bono assistance. The clearinghouse will essentially serve as an initial screening system. Users are required to provide contact information and answer a few questions to determine their potential eligibility for the program. It also requires users to provide basic invention information to assist in proper referral, including a brief description of their invention that will be kept confidential. The process is intended to be streamlined and completed quickly and painlessly. All users should keep in mind that acceptance into any pro bono regional program is not guaranteed.
One component of the screening process gauges users' pre-existing knowledge of the patent system. Such information is particularly helpful for specific regional programs to determining how to best serve the user. Users can verify that they have patent knowledge by taking a certification training course, in the form of a video, found in the Pro Se and Pro Bono section of the USPTO website. The video offers viewers a better understanding of the patent process and what rights an inventor obtains when granted a patent.
In 2013, an additional 10 regional pro bono programs will begin operations. The entire country is expected to be covered by mid-year 2014. With that said, you may not find a pro bono program in your city, but each area of the country will be represented by a designated program. The national clearinghouse will forward potential pro bono clients to the closest region based on the individual or business' location.
The USPTO looks forward to the day when no deserving invention lacks patent protection as a result of the inventor being financially under-resourced. By working together with a growing cadre of professional and skilled intellectual property law practitioners, the USPTO is making sure that day will be a reality in the near future.