Anatomy of a Patent

If you have ever tried to read a patent, it probably did not take you long to realize that they are usually written in a language that is not quite the same English that you and I speak and write in everyday. A patent is a very technical document and specific meanings can be given to terms used within the patent. When the time comes to enforce a patent, the determination of infringement can be based on the definition give to certain terms within the patent. For these reasons, it is important that a patent be drafted with very precise language, but this can make the patent difficult, if not impossible, for a non-patent professional to understand. The good news is that by knowing what parts of the patents perform what functions, it may become easier to understand the scope of information protected and disclosed by the patent. Let us use U.S. Pat. No. 6,896,339 as an example. (I like this patent because I am listed as one of the inventors of the patent.) This patent, like all non-provisional utility patents that are currently issued has several parts: an abstract, drawings, a description, and claims.

The abstract is a very brief overview intended to give the reader some idea of what the patent is all about. It is not uncommon for the patent drafter to use the first claim of the patent as the basis for creating the abstract. While the abstract may be useful to orient the reader to what type of subject matter is covered by the patent, the reader should remember that the abstract is a very small portion of the information contained within the patent.

The drawings are visual depictions of the subject matter contained within the patent. These drawings are referred to in the description portion of the patent and used to illustrate the material contained within the patent. Reviewing the drawings can provide the reader of a basic idea of the subject matter contained within the patent, particularly when the patent is directed toward a mechanical device or other inventive idea that lends itself to a visual representation.

The description section of the patent discloses the invention protected by the patent in enough detail to allow a person having ordinary knowledge in the art field to which the patent is directed to create the item protected by the patent. This section describes each drawing and provides definitions for terms that will be used in the claims. Anything disclosed in the description section will become prior art and may affect the ability of other inventors to obtain patent coverage for their ideas.

The claims are the numbered paragraphs that are at the end of the patent. These claims stake out the scope of the intellectual property that is owned by the patent owner. Patent infringement occurs only when each and every element of one of the claims is present in the infringing device. For this reason, the broadest patents generally have at least a couple of claims with relatively few elements. When determining whether to pursue a patent application, it may be beneficial to perform a patent search to determine the likelihood of receiving a patent with broad claims.

While patents are technical documents and patent professionals spend years learning the art and rules of patent drafting, with a little practice reading a patent may become a little less like reading a Greek tragedy and a little more like reading your favorite novel, or at least something written in English.


Kelly G. Swartz is a registered patent attorney practicing in Melbourne, Florida.

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