Thursday, April 15, 2010

Patent Basics IV - The Parts of a Patent, and a Baby's Butt

Patent Basics IV

(This is the fourth post in my series on Patent Basics; the first three posts can be found here, here, and here. My previous series on Trademark Basics has been consolidated on my website at Future "basics" series will cover copyrights and trade secrets.)

The Parts of a Patent

If you've done your prior art search and are still feel your idea is worth protecting, it's worth knowing a bit about the geography of the patent application. A patent has a number of sections, each of which has a specific purpose. While there's no need to memorize each and every one of these, it will be helpful to have some understanding of what the main sections are and why they're there. This will allow you to communicate more effectively with your patent counsel (or the Patent Office, if you're taking the task on yourself).

There are four main parts to every patent application. They end up appearing in the issued patent; take a look at one example here. (This patent is one of my favorite examples of a patent. It happens to be for a method and kit for painting using the posterior of an infant. That's correct: someone patented the idea of painting using a baby's butt. Depending on your situation (budding inventor or patent professional), that should either be cause for hope or despair. At any rate, given that we're focusing on structure there's no reason not to have a bit of fun along the way.)

The Cover Page

The first page of the patent is a busy place, with a number of categories of information that many people ignore, but which are in fact very useful for those who are searching for prior art, looking for particular types of patents, or wanting a quick synopsis of what the patent is supposed to cover.

The cover page information includes (in order) the name of the patent and its inventors; filing date information (so we can figure out when the term expires); any official adjustments that have been made to that term; information about any related patent applications; various categories of classification information that the Patent Office uses to help organize the millions of patents in its records (very helpful for searching for prior art); a list of other patents and prior art that the examiner considered during the examination of the application; the abstract (a one-paragraph summary of what the patent covers); and a representative drawing from the patent.

The Drawings

Most every patent includes one or more drawings. In the case of our baby butt patent, the first drawing (Fig. 1) provides us with an example of the fine art that one can create using a baby's rear end in place of a brush. The numbers you see on the drawing tie in to the written description of the invention in the Specification, and allow the reader to follow along while the Specification describes the drawing.

The second page of drawings (Figs.2 and 3) are flowcharts. (Note the three-step method for painting using a baby's rear: (1) prepare background media; (2) dip; and (3) stamp. Good thing we have that flowchart.) A flowchart is a very common way of visually displaying the method described in the Specification. Again, numbers on the flowchart will tie in to the description in the Specification.

Figures 4, 5, and 6 are more conventional drawings, these of the baby butt paint kit. (And you do need a kit to guide you through the intricate baby butt painting method.) Again, numbers tie the drawing to the description in the Specification.

The Specification

The Specification immediately follows the Drawings. Patent lawyers being the uber-hipsters that we are, we typically refer to this as “the Spec.” (While I will let you in on these trade secrets from time to time, I'll never reveal the secret handshake.)

The Specification is perhaps the most accessible part of the patent. It is written in narrative form, and should teach the invention to a person “of ordinary skill in the art.” When the art is microbiology, there are relatively few people who are “of ordinary skill in the art.” When the art is painting using parts of the human body, as in our example, all of us probably are of ordinary skill in the art.

The subsections of the Specification of the baby butt painting patent are typical, and help satisfy the legal requirements for a patent. The Field of the Invention describes the technical field covered by the invention. The Background of the Invention is meant to do just what it says: explain what the background is of the invention, and will explain the problem that the invention was designed to overcome. In our example, the problem was the fact that “there is no known kit available, or method associated therewith, to assist in creating a remembrance that results in a fine art end product which is not easily recognized as merely a remembrance.”

The Summary of the Invention provides a short description of what is included in the product or method described in the Specification. And the Brief Description of the Drawings will list each drawing and provide a short summary of what is shown in each.

The meat of the Specification is the Detailed Description of the Preferred Embodiment of the Invention. This is an extended narrative that should explain how the invention works, and should use and reference each of the drawings at one or more points. The “preferred embodiment” is typically the one that best reflects the new and hopefully patentable properties of the invention. In our example, the patent splits its description between about a paragraph and a half that describes the preferred embodiment of painting with a baby's hiney, and roughly three full columns describing the preferred embodiment of the kit for doing so. That is probably because there are only so many ways that one can paint using an infant's posterior in place of a brush, but many ways that one could configure a painting kit.

Often the Specification will also describe other embodiments of the invention. These may be ones that were invented during the development process, but were considered to be less favorable than the preferred embodiment. It is sometimes helpful to describe these so that they can be protected by the patent as well. This can broaden the coverage of the patent, making it harder for competitors to copy the idea by making slight variations on the method.

The Claims

The claims are the most difficult part of the patent for the non-lawyer to understand. They're also the most important part of the patent, because the claims are what define the invention. Everything up to the claims has been explanation and elaboration – but in the end, it is the claim set that courts look at when they make infringement determinations.

The two types of claims are independent claims – which stand on their own – and dependent claims, which feed off of and relate to independent claims. In our example, claim 1 is an independent claim:

1.A method of painting using the posterior of an infant, said method comprising the acts of:
providing a background media;
providing a paint supply;
dipping the posterior of the infant in said paint supply;
stamping the posterior on said background media to create stamping prints.

More about this in a bit. Claim 2 is a dependent claim:

2.A method as defined in claim 1, wherein:
said dipping and said stamping steps are repeated in sequence.

Claim 2 builds on claim 1, and everything that is in claim 1 is considered to be part of claim 2.

You may hear the word “limitations” used in connection with claims. Limitations are important part of a claim; consider them like ingredients in a recipe – if you leave one out, then arguably you're not making the same dish. In our claim 1, the limitations follow the words “comprising the acts of.” So if we dip another part of our baby in the paint (say the top of the head, being careful of the soft spot) and stamp that part on the background media, then we arguably are not practicing the patented invention. (Please note that this is greatly simplifying the process of reading claims and applying them to our potentially infringing method of painting with a baby.)

Knowing what goes into your patent application will help you communicate with your attorney about it, and will give you a better understanding of what is going on throughout the prosecution process. The next post in this series will outline the patent application process.