Intellectual property strategy

Types of Intellectual property

Optimize your intellectual property strategy by using a combination of patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets.  

In theory, the different categories of IP (utility patents, provisional patents, design patents, copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets) are distinct. However, in practice, these can somewhat overlap. Each is a type of IP protection tool. Maximize your intellectual property strategy by picking the right set of tools for the right situation.

Patents (utility patents) cover useful, original, and not obvious ideas for gadgets, physical objects, compositions of matter (e.g. drugs), and the like. These must be filed, carefully reviewed, and ultimately disclosed to the public. They can last for up to 20 years if maintenance fees are paid.

Provisional patents are essentially a short-lived (1-year) first draft of a utility patent.

Patents (design patents) cover the ornamental appearance of a functional item. These also must be filed, reviewed, and ultimately disclosed to the public. These last for 15 years, maintenance fees not required.

Copyrights cover original written material, music, images, movies, and the like. These can last over a lifetime (e.g. lifetime of the author plus 70 years) after initial publication. Registration not initially required, but eventually needed to enforce rights.

Trademarks cover the words, symbols, or packaging associated with certain classes of products and services in commerce.  Registration, disclosure to the public, and review required. These have no lifetime limit, so long as the owner periodically sends in proof of continued use in commerce.

Trade Secrets cover undisclosed commercially useful information not generally known to the public or trade. These can include unpatentable items such as recipes, as well as un-copyrightable items such as lists. No lifetime limit, provided that the secret does not get exposed.

Sometimes it is possible to improve your intellectual property strategy by handling the IP under multiple categories. Examples include:

  • Using a non-publication request to keep the IP secret while pursuing a US patent
  • Converting a utility patent drawing to a later design patent
  • Protecting a user interface IP as a utility patent, design patent, and copyright
  • Recording a distinctive design as both a design patent and a trademark
  • Filing a distinctive image (or fragment of literature) as both a copyright and a trademark

There are some tricky aspects to the multiple category approach as well, these include:

  • Cases where international IP rules are different from US rules
  • Trying to use a provisional patent for a later design patent
  • Shifting copyright (non-functional) vs patent (functional) and design patent (ornamental appearance of functional item) distinctions
  • Competitors using your assertions for one IP category against another IP category

So “mind the gap”, but it pays to think broadly and strategically here.

Saving patent eligibility

patent eligibility
USPTO attempting to fix legal confusion

The 2019 USPTO revised patent subject matter eligibility guidance attempts to bring some coherence and consistency to “Alice” patent eligibility issues.

USPTO director Andrei Iancu recently promised that the USPTO would try to clean up the “Alice” patent eligibility mess.  On January 7, 2019, the USPTO issued the “2019 Revised Patent Subject Matter Eligibility Guidance.” At first glance, this appears to be a promising approach. Hopefully, this 2019 guidance will greatly reduce the number of semi-random 35 USC 101 rejections. Some excerpts are shown below.

Properly applying the Alice/Mayo test in a consistent manner has proven to be difficult, and has caused uncertainty in this area of the law.

Since the Alice case, courts have been “compare[ing] claims at issue to those claims already found to be directed to an abstract idea in previous cases…While that approach was effective soon after Alice was decided, it has since become impractical. The Federal Circuit has now issued numerous decisions identifying subject matter as abstract or non-abstract in the context of specific cases, and that number is continuously growing. In addition, similar subject matter has been described both as abstract and not abstract in different cases…The USPTO, therefore, aims to clarify the analysis…

Under the procedure, if a claim recites a judicial exception (a law of nature, a natural phenomenon, or an abstract idea as grouped in Section I, above), it must then be analyzed to determine whether the recited judicial exception is integrated into a practical application of that exception. A claim is not “directed to” a judicial exception, and thus is patent eligible, if the claim as a whole integrates the recited judicial exception into a practical application of that exception. A claim that integrates a judicial exception into a practical application will apply, rely on, or use the judicial exception in a manner that imposes a meaningful limit on the judicial exception…

If the recited exception is integrated into a practical application of the exception, then the claim is eligible at Prong Two of revised Step 2A. This concludes the eligibility analysis…

Examiners evaluate integration into a practical application by: (a) identifying whether there are any additional elements recited in the claim beyond the judicial exception(s); and (b) evaluating those additional elements individually and in combination to determine whether they integrate the exception into a practical application… in revised Step 2A examiners should ensure that they give weight to all additional elements, whether or not they are conventional, when evaluating whether a judicial exception has been integrated into a practical application.

It is critical that examiners consider the claim as a whole when evaluating whether the judicial exception is meaningfully limited by integration into a practical application of the exception.

If the claim as a whole integrates the recited tentative abstract idea into a practical application, the claim is not directed to a judicial exception (Step 2A: NO) and is eligible (thus concluding the eligibility analysis).

Almost all patent applications are filed for practical applications. This 2019 guidance makes nearly all practical applications patent eligible.  It also somewhat reframes eligibility more in terms of the original (and in my opinion much better) “preemption” considerations. Hopefully, this will encourage examiners to stop rejecting otherwise good applications on dubious and subjective “not patent eligible” grounds.