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The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is a federal agency in the U.S. Department of Commerce. The USPTO grants patents and registers trademarks to entrepreneurs in the United States. The USPTO also guides intellectual property policy to:

  • The President of the United States
  • U.S. government agencies
  • The Secretary of Commerce
  • Judges in intellectual property disputes

Business owners, startups, inventors, and entrepreneurs need intellectual property protection. This article addresses key points about the USPTO and its role in providing intellectual property protection.

Purpose of the USPTO

The USPTO aims to promote and protect the innovation and ideas of business owners and individuals. It does this by registering trademarks and granting patents for new inventions. The primary role of the United States Patent and Trademark Office is to uphold the patent and copyright clause of the Constitution. This clause states that Congress has the power "to promote the progress of science and the useful arts by securing the exclusive intellectual property rights of their respective inventors."

Patents

The USPTO examines patent applications to decide if inventions meet the criteria for patentability. The patent must be novel, useful, and non-obvious. The invention can be a:

  • Machine
  • Manufacture
  • Process
  • Composition of matter
  • A new improvement

To apply for a patent, you must submit a patent application to the USPTO. You can search for existing patents at uspto.gov. USPTO receives 350,000 patent applications per year. USPTO examiners review applications to ensure they follow legal requirements. They assess the novelty and non-obviousness of the invention. Examining technology centers (TC) review these patent applications. Each TC has jurisdiction over specific assigned fields of technology. A group of directors, support staff, and examiners work in each TC.

Trademarks

The USPTO also registers trademarks. Trademarks are distinctive:

  • Signs
  • Symbols
  • Logos

Trademarks identify and distinguish the goods or services of one party from others. Trademark registration is not required, but doing so provides legal IP protection. Before you can register your trademark, you must submit an application. You should search the Trademark Electronic System Search (TESS) for existing trademarks before applying. The database allows users to search for information and the status of applications. The application fee to the USPTO is nonrefundable, so if the examiners deny your application, you do not get your fee returned.

USPTO trademark examiners review trademark applications. The examiners determine if they qualify for trademark registration. To qualify, the trademark must meet the requirements for registration. The examination process involves searching existing trademarks to assess potential conflicts. A potential conflict occurs if there would be a likelihood of confusion by consumers who would think the applicant mark was part of an existing mark's brand. Confusion can occur if a mark sounds or looks like a registered mark, even if it is not spelled the same way, for similar goods or services. The examination process also includes examining the application for compliance with legal standards.

Patent and Trademark Trial and Appeal Boards

The USPTO has two administrative tribunals: The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) and the Trademark and Trial Appeal Board (TTAB). These boards handle appeals, interferences, trademark oppositions, post-grant reviews, and inter-partes reviews.

Other USPTO Resources

The USPTO offers many resources and services to help inventors and trademark owners. The USPTO provides educational materials on the different types of intellectual property:

  • Trade secrets
  • Copyrights
  • Patents
  • Trademarks

The USPTO has an IP identifier on its website that helps users identify exactly what type of intellectual property they have. Also, they have programs and initiatives with the U.S. Small Business Administration's (SBA) - Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) to support small businesses.

The USPTO IP Attaché Program promotes and protects IP rights internationally. The IP Attaché program does this by:

  • Entering new foreign markets
  • Resolving issues involving obtaining IP rights in foreign jurisdictions
  • Addressing IP enforcement challenges in international affairs

History of the USPTO

The USPTO is one of the largest intellectual property offices in the world. The USPTO headquarters is in Alexandria, Virginia. The USPTO has played a fundamental role in American history. This office has:

  • Fostered innovation
  • Protected intellectual property
  • Promoted economic growth in the U.S.

Early Years

The USPTO originates back to the Patent Act of 1790. The Patent Act established the Patent Board to grant patents. The Patent Board consisted of the:

  • Attorney General
  • Secretary of State
  • Secretary of War

In 1802, the Patent Office became a distinct bureau. A separate official in the Department of State who became known as the "Superintendent of Patents" was in charge of patents. A few decades later, Congress passed the Patent Act of 1836. This revision of the patent laws reorganized the Patent Office as a separate entity within the Department of State. It also designated the official in charge as Commissioner of Patents.

An Independent Agency

The Patent Office remained in the Department of State until 1849. Then it was transferred to the Department of Interior. It also got a new name that year and became an independent agency known as the United States Patent Office.

In 1925, the office transferred to the Department of Commerce, where it is today. In the 1970s, the name changed again. It was now the Patent and Trademark Office. The Office also began processing international patent filings under the Patent Cooperation Treaty of 1970.

In 1982, Congress established the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to handle patent appeals. Then, in the 1990s, the USPTO launched the Patent Application Retrieval system. The Patent Application Retrieval system is an online patent search database. The database allows patent information to be more accessible to the public. The office also implemented electronic filing systems.

The USPTO Today

  • In the early 2000s, the name of the Office changed to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. In 2011, Congress enacted the America Invents Act (AIA). The AIA introduced a transition from a first-to-invent to a first-to-file system. It also implemented new post-grant review procedures. Other initiatives in recent years include:
  • Focusing on reducing patent backlogs
  • Enhancing patent quality
  • Improving the examination process by introducing programs like the Patents End-to-End (PE2E) system

Learn How to Protect Your Business's Intellectual Property

If you want to apply for a patent or register a trademark with the USPTO, it is highly recommended that you consult with an intellectual property attorney for guidance through the application process. Look to FindLaw's attorney directory for a local attorney to help you in your area.

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