USPTO office actions are used to reject most patent applications by using “done before”, “obvious”, “vague”, or “not patent-eligible” type arguments.
Although we all hope that a patent application will sail through the USPTO patent examination process and be allowed “as is”, this usually doesn’t occur. As a practical matter, examiners work on a quota system. The net effect of this quota or “count” system is that the average successful patent is usually rejected several times before it is allowed.
Typically an examiner will first read the patent claims and search for various citations (often earlier-filed patent applications) that match certain claim key-words. The examiner will then write a 20-40+ page “office action” document that rejects your various claims for various reasons, and send it to the correspondence contact of record. The examiner expects you to respond within three months by submitting a written “office action response” that rebuts these various rejections.
The most “popular” USPTO rejections are:
Done before – 35 USC 102: The examiner thinks he has found another single citation that teaches everything in your particular claim. However absent actual copying, no two patents are usually totally alike. This type of rejection can often be rebutted by explaining where the citation is different or amending the claims to add additional detail that differs from the citation.
Note that filing a patent application more than one year after the invention was first published or sold also results in 35 USC 102 rejections. Under the law, the invention is instead considered to be public domain.
Obvious – 35 USC 103: The examiner (sometimes impermissibly guided by your disclosure) is attempting to reject your claim by combining features from multiple citations. The examiner may often create a Frankenstein concept that may or may not be plausible. Fortunately, there are examination rules here. Often this type of rejection can be rebutted by any of 1) showing that the examiner is misquoting the citations, 2) amending your claims, 3) showing which “103” examination rules were broken.
Vague – 35 USC 112: This “vagueness” or “indefinite” type rejection is used for different things. Sometimes it is harmless and easily corrected, such as when the claim’s grammar is off. Sometimes it is deadly, such as when your underlying patent application doesn’t teach how your invention works in adequate detail. This is more likely to happen if the original application lacks specific examples. Although this can often be rebutted or fixed by changing the claims, sometimes the only way to attempt to fix this is to file a “continuation in part” application that adds the missing detail.
Not eligible – 35 USC 101: In the old days (i.e. before 2015), this was a rarely used rejection because the 35 USC 101 law was written to be very expansive. However, recent court decisions have made this area quite a swamp, and this is still being sorted out. In the meantime, realize that business methods and financial methods have a higher than average rejection risk.