At the intersection of law and technology, patent law is an exciting and rapidly growing practice area. A patent is an intellectual property right granted to an inventor “to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States” for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention. The purpose of a patent is to promote innovation through economic incentive, and patent law serves to protect such incentive.
The USPTO is the government agency responsible for patents. Located in Alexandria, VA, the USPTO issues patents and creates rules governing them. USPTO employees responsible for issuing patents are called patent examiners. Patent agents and attorneys work closely with examiners to secure the inventor's intellectual property rights. Albert Einstein was a patent examiner in the Swiss patent office. A patent agent is someone who has passed the Patent Bar and is competent to file patent applications for others. A law school degree is not necessary to become a patent agent. However, many patent agents are also attorneys, and one must be an attorney to litigate a patent case before a court.
A United States patent only provides protection for activities within the United States. Generally, to obtain international protection for an invention, an inventor must seek a patent in the appropriate governing body in each country in which he or she wishes to enforce intellectual property rights. However, a number of international bodies and treaties provide avenues that allow one to obtain protection in multiple countries for a single patent.
With a great increase in patents filed and litigated each year, patent law is a rapidly growing practice area. Many general practice firms have intellectual property divisions in addition to real estate, tax, or any other practice area. Other law firms specialize in a particular practice area, such as intellectual property and are known as boutiques. As of 2012, the top 10 firms by number of patent agents and attorneys are:
|1||Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner||276|
|2||Fish & Richardson||246|
|4||Kenyon & Kenyon||155|
|5||Foley & Lardner||151|
|7||Townsend and Townsend||138|
|8||Ropes & Gray||134|
|9||Brinks Hofer Gilson & Lione||122|
|10||Morrison & Foerster||114|
This list was taken from the Avery Index, where the top 100 firms by number of patent agents can be found.
Aside from law firms, patent attorneys and agents also work as corporate counsel, patent examiners, and in many other fields.
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Diagram from US Patent Application 20110274303, embodied in the iPod Shuffle.