Exploring this Job
Since patent law combines the areas of science/technology and law, there are a number of ways you can explore this field. To investigate the law aspect of this career, try to get a part-time job or internship with a law office in your area. You will probably be performing tasks such as filing papers, photocopying, and answering phones, but this experience will give you an idea of what working in a law office is like. If you can't find such a job, try locating a lawyer in your area with whom you could do an information interview. Even if the lawyer is not a patent lawyer, he or she may be able to give you some insights into the practice of law and the experience of law school.
To explore the science/technology aspects of this career, consider joining a science or engineering club at your school. Ask your science or technology teacher about any contacts he or she might have with science or engineering professors at the university level. You may be able to set up an information interview with a scientist or engineer working on or having completed a Ph.D. Find out what this person likes about the field and get any advice he or she may offer to a young scientist or engineer.
Individuals, groups, or businesses often seek patents for their inventions as a way to protect against others from profiting or misusing their original idea. Patent lawyers are attorneys that specialize in patent law, which is one branch of intellectual property law. They help clients navigate through the process of obtaining a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). There are three different types of patents awarded in the United States depending on the subject matter. A utility patent, the most common, is issued to protect a process or function of an invention. Design patents protect the ornamental or decorative aspect of an object. Plant patents are issued for a newly invented or discovered asexually reproduced plant.
During the initial stage of the patent process, lawyers meet with the client to familiarize themselves with the invention. Clients describe the nature of the invention, its purpose, and how it differs from others that may already be on the market. The patent lawyer will then evaluate the technical aspect of the invention and advise the client as whether or not it is worthy of a patent. Research is often done to find similar inventions and compare technical or functional differences. A patent lawyer working on presenting a type of crayon lipstick, for example, would research all patents or patents pending for similar cosmetics, or those presented in a comparable container.
The next step in the patent process is a formal application. The lawyer drafts a detailed description of the invention, in this case the crayon lipstick. It's the lawyer's job to define what the product is and how it works. He or she may include drawings of the lipstick's holder, which show the mechanics and composition of the case, as well as composition of the actual lip color. He or she will also attach a set of claims that will define the scope of the client's rights as a patent holder. Will the patent prevent other cosmetic companies from using a holder with a similar design? Is the texture or hues of the crayon lipstick covered within the patent's boundaries?
The patent lawyer sends the completed application, additional documents, and applicable fees to the USPTO. Once received, the case is assigned to an examiner. The patent lawyer will often maintain correspondence with the examiner, provide additional information or technical drawings, or make amendments as needed to the original application. The patent lawyer will receive notification on whether or not the patent is granted. If rejected, the lawyer may file for an appeal. Once approved, a patent prevents the item or invention from being copied or sold by those other than the patent holder for a period of 20 years.
Patent lawyers may also help their clients file for patents in other countries, in case the invention is to be marketed internationally. They may also represent the client if there is evidence that the patent has been infringed.