Patent and Trademark assignments

Who owns that patent? Some countries automatically assume that patents belong to the employer. However the US legal system presumes that patents originally belong to their human inventors. This is based on various “right of capture” cases involving foxes and other critters that go back to medieval/roman times.

The chain of title

A “chain of title” shows how ownership and other rights to a piece of property changed over time. The underlying concepts are based on real estate law. Over over hundreds of years, this law developed methods to protect the innocent against various real estate scams. Here we will skip over many years of colorful and sometimes bloody history and focus on modern-day IP.

The law requires an unbroken series of records handing off ownership from one owner to the next. This chain must extend from the original owners (the inventors) to the present owners. The USPTO helps manage this process through their online “Electronic Patent Assignment System” (EPAS). The USPTO also has a similar system for Trademarks, called the “Electronic Trademark Assignment System” (ETAS).

EPAS – Electronic Patent Assignment System

The EPAS system automatically records (and displays) the chain of title from the original inventors to the present owner(s). It is often useful to see “who” owns “what.”

Real estate history is full of frauds, such as selling the same property multiple times to unsuspecting purchasers. So, various legal anti-fraud measures have evolved.

In particular, the law tends to treat innocent “good faith” (bona fide) purchasers more kindly. But the purchasers must show some prudence, such as by looking up assignment records before purchasing. This system won’t work if the assignment records are not current. To keep the system up-to-date, the USPTO follows 35 USC § 261, which states:

35 USC § 261: An interest that constitutes an assignment, grant or conveyance shall be void as against any subsequent purchaser or mortgagee for a valuable consideration, without notice, unless it is recorded in the Patent and Trademark Office within three months from its date or prior to the date of such subsequent purchase or mortgage.

What does this legalese mean? It means you should register your patent (or trademark) assignments within three months.

Nunc Pro Trunc Assignments

In the real world, businesses are often bought and sold with long contracts. The IP list usually ends up in the appendix of these contracts. As an intangible property, everyone tends to overlook this appendix. Then, sometimes much later (often as part of due diligence for a later sale), someone notices that the IP was not correctly assigned. The results are often quite exciting. Can you say “SNAFU?”

Retroactive assignments: You can usually fix late assignments by filing the assignments retroactively. The USPTO calls these “Nunc Pro Tunc Assignments” (Latin for “now for then”). However, the drawback of such late assignments is that the “automatic” anti-fraud legal protection no longer operates. You don’t need these automatic protections if there is no fraud. However, the automatic protection occurring with on-time filing is preferable.

Illustration: Blockchain by James Fok from the Noun Project