Cutting Edge Pro Bono: Patent Law and Low-Income Inventors

Over the past several years, the U.S. Patent andapproved Trademark Office (USPTO) Patent Pro Bono Program, working with partners across the U.S., has offered unique pro bono opportunities that engage lawyers to help low-income inventors apply for and secure patents. The first client-side patent pro bono program to assist low-income inventors in prosecuting patents was initially piloted in Minnesota with attorneys from Smiths Medical and Patterson Thuente Pedersen, among others. Since then, the Patent Pro Bono Program has become a nationwide effort, available in 47 states.

For low-income inventors, the impact of pro bono assistance is significant. A patent can be extremely valuable for inventors, allowing them to commercialize their invention and to have ownership of their ideas. However, hiring an attorney may cost thousands of dollars, which is not feasible for many low-income inventors. Given the high cost of hiring counsel, many inventors either choose to proceed pro se or not apply at all, leading to a significant justice gap. Pro se applicants struggle to navigate this highly complex area of law without legal guidance. For example, in Minnesota, 39.9 percent of applications prepared with the assistance of counsel are approved without a request for continued examination or appeal, compared to just 12.3 percent of pro se applications.

The Patent Pro Bono Program also serves an unmet interest among volunteers, providing patent attorneys an opportunity to use their unique skills and expertise to assist low-income individuals. As a result, it has attracted volunteers from numerous organizations. In Minnesota, the Patent Pro Bono Program operates as the LegalCORPS’ Inventor Assistance Program and counts among its supporters companies such as 3M Company**, Boston Scientific Corporation**, General Mills, Inc.**, Mayo Clinic**, and Medtronic, Inc.**, and law firms such as Barnes & Thorneburg*†, Dorsey & Whitney*†, Faegre Baker Daniels*†, Fish & Richardson†, Lindquist & Vennum*†, and Norton Rose Fulbright*†. Attorneys from these departments and firms, and many others, have donated many hours to represent inventors before the USPTO.

This collaborative engagement has proven highly successful in other jurisdictions as well. For example, in California, Fenwick & West*† partnered with Intel Corporation** to found the Northern California Pro Bono Patent Program, which has engaged lawyers at Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company**; Microsoft Corporation**; Nixon Peabody*†; Morrison & Foerster *†; Milbank, Tweed, Hadly, and McCloy *†; Perkins Coie *†; Foley & Lardner*†; and Hogan Lovells US*†, among others.

The PBEye congratulates all those involved in developing, piloting, expanding, and staffing the Patent Pro Bono Program and looks forward to reporting about more innovative projects like this in the future. For information on how to get involved in your state, please visit the USPTO’s Patent Pro Bono Program website.

Hat tip to PBI intern CJ Rydberg for his help with this post.

* denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®signatory

† denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project

** denotes a CPBO Challenge® signatory