The strange things you need to do to file patents in the US

This is from an actual patent application.
This is from an actual patent application.
Image: US Patent and Trademark Office
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Applying for a patent is not easy—that’s why patent drafters charge so much to file applications on the behalf of inventors. The US Patent and Trademark Office’s application rule book alone is over 450 pages long. Quartz trawled through the guidelines to find out why patent drawings look so bizarre, and came across a few other quirky rules that the Patent Office requires all its applicants to abide by.

Send everything by post

The Patent Office still prefers to do everything by mail, with all applications and correspondence being sent to a PO box in Virginia. If, however, you have decided to invest in a computer and a modem, you can now write to the Patent Office to tell them that you would prefer to correspond over email. You still have to mail them a letter in the first place, though:

Without a written authorization by applicant in place, the USPTO will not respond via Internet e-mail to any Internet correspondence which contains information subject to the confidentiality requirement as set forth in 35 U.S.C. 122. A paper copy of such correspondence will be placed in the appropriate patent application.

The Patent Office is still a big fan of typewriters and fax machines, too.

Be courteous

If you’re applying for a US patent, don’t be a jerk.

Applicants and their attorneys or agents are required to conduct their business with the United States Patent and Trademark Office with decorum and courtesy.

Don’t write in slang

If the patent examiner finds any YOLOs, selfie sticks or drones in your writing, they’re going to make you resubmit your application.

A substitute specification in proper idiomatic English and in compliance with 37 CFR 1.52(a) and (b) is required. The substitute specification filed must be accompanied by a statement that it contains no new matter.

Use india ink, preferably

The Patent Office wants a high contrast on its patent applications between the paper and the images. It suggests using a form of ink that has been around for thousands of years, roughly around the same time since the Patent Office updated its rule book.

(1) Black ink. Black and white drawings are normally required. India ink, or its equivalent that secures solid black lines, must be used for drawings;

Draw weird drawings

Patents often require drawings to better explain the inventions they’re trying to patent. The number of patents being awarded worldwide has shot up in recent years, but the artistry of the patent drawings has not.

The applicant shall furnish a drawing where necessary for the understanding of the subject matter sought to be patented. When the nature of such subject matter admits of illustration by a drawing and the applicant has not furnished such a drawing, the Director may require its submission within a time period of not less than two months from the sending of a notice thereof.

Kevin Prince, a patent draftsman who has published a book on the history of patent drawings, says that drawings seem to be regressing in quality. ”I think it’s ironic that in an age when we did not have computers and we had to do these drawings by hand, that they were better drawings,” Prince said.

Prince said the bizarre drawings that are now found in patents can be blamed on a time crunch, and precedent. The Patent Office currently has a backlog of over 600,000 patents it is trying to get through. “They’ve loosened the standards, and as a result, you can get away with doing less: I’ve seen some absolutely terrible hand-drawn drawings that are published patents,” Prince said. “I think it’s just a relaxation of standards at the Patent Office. Everyone’s crunched for time.”

Patent drafters also look for precedent for their drawings. “Draftsmen will refer to other patents to see what was allowed,” Prince said.  If “the internet” has been represented as a cloud in a patent that was approved, drafters will copy that style. This is the same reason why most computers look like mid-90s Dell desktops. This means poor artwork is likely to be replicated in future patent applications. However, Prince said, this isn’t really the case for design patents, which are concerned with the industrial design of a product, rather than how the product works.

“There’s been a decrease in the quality of drawings on the utility patents, for sure, but you can’t shortcut the design patent drawings,” Prince said.

For reference, the drawing at the top of this post is from an actual utility patent application for a hat to help hunters blend in to their surroundings. It was not awarded a patent.