By Dennis Crouch
Patent "quality" has many different meanings. The primary focus of the PTO under Director Dave Kappos is on the timely issuance of "right sized," valid patents. I would add an additional important focus of ensuring that the scope and coverage of each patent is relatively easy to determine. These measures of patent quality fit within broader goals of the patent system -- incentivizing innovation and disclosure of those innovations within a competitive marketplace. The patent rules are intended work as something of a feedback system at varying levels of granularity, guiding innovators and applicants in ways that hopefully push us toward those ultimate goals.
I tend to model the patenting process is something of a negotiation between the PTO an the patent applicant. The PTO possesses the authority to grant or deny patent applications, but every word found in the patent is written or approved by the patent applicant. Obviously, the patent applicant's role in this process is deep and substantial. A patent's conception begins with words drafted by the patent applicant, not the examiner; amendments are made by the patent applicant, not the examiner, and, after approval by the patent examiner, is the patent applicant must approve the final issuance of a patent (with the payment of a fee).
For many years, I have argued that meaningful change in the state of patent law and patent quality could be implemented in incentives that push applicants toward filing quality patent applications – claiming valid subject matter and drafting claims with well-defined scope. The USPTO agrees and has now published a notice on its project to "focus on potential practices that applicants can employ at the drafting stage of a patent application in order to facilitate examination and bring more certainty to the scope of issued patents." Email comments to QualityApplications_Comments@uspto.gov by March 15, 2013.
The PTO's current ideas on this front focus on ways to clarify the meaning of terms used in the claims and the resulting scope of the claims. Some of the initial ideas presented are traditional define-your-terms notions while others suggest that new mechanisms of information connectivity may offer solutions.
On these fronts, the PTO lists the following ideas and requests comments:
- Clarifying the Scope of the Claims
- Presenting claims in a multi-part format by way of a standardized template that places each claim component in separate, clearly marked, and designated fields. For instance, a template may facilitate drafting and review of claims by separately delineating each claim component into separate fields for the preamble, transitional phrase, and each particular claim limitation.
- Identifying corresponding support in the specification for each of the claim limitations utilizing, for example, a claim chart or the standardized template described above. This practice could be particularly beneficial where claims are amended or where a continuing application (continuation, divisional, continuation-in-part) is filed.
- Indicating whether examples in the specification are intended to be limiting or merely illustrative.
- Identifying whether the claim preamble is intended to be a limitation on claim scope.
- Expressly identifying clauses within particular claim limitations for which the inventor intends to invoke 35 U.S.C. 112(f) and pointing out where in the specification corresponding structures, materials, or acts are disclosed that are linked to the identified 35 U.S.C. 112(f) claim limitations.
- Using textual and graphical notation systems known in the art to disclose algorithms in support of computer-implemented claim limitations, such as C-like pseudo-code or XML-like schemas for textual notation and Unified Modeling Language (UML) for graphical notation.
- Clarifying the Meaning of Claim Terms in the Specification
- Indicating whether terms of degree—such as substantially, approximately, about, essentially—have a lay or technical meaning and explaining the scope of such terms.
- Including in the specification a glossary of potentially ambiguous, distinctive, and specialized terms used in the specification and/or claims, particularly for inventions related to certain technologies, such as software.
- Designating, at the time of filing the application, a default dictionary or dictionaries (e.g., a technical dictionary and a non-technical dictionary) to be used in ascertaining the meaning of the claim terms.
As we all move forward with this process (over the years…), I am confident that we will begin to think of patents less and less like "documents" that printed and read, but more like digital information maps that provides a network of information about inventions. Part of this potential comes from linking claim terms to descriptions found elsewhere and direct mark-up that ties original text to post application changes and notations.
None of these changes would make patent quality easy – but they would likely help move us in the right direction.