How To Read a Patent
The Art of the Quick Read
Reading patents can be infuriating. But if you understand how they are organized, and where the important information about the inventions is buried within the giant patent text blob you can browse a patent to get an idea of what the invention disclosed in the patent is before hunkering down to read the whole thing. This is a useful skill especially when faced with a giant list of patent numbers where you are not where to start. Here is how we wade through the giant patent text blob to get the gist of what a patent is about, who invented it and who owns it, the and other important details about the problem it solves and why it's useful. At the bottom of the page we added an example of how to do a quick read using a patent on something most people have used to either buy an item from Amazon.com or to download a some from iTunes (Apple was an earlier licensee of this patent), the Amazon One-Click Patent.
The usual disclaimer applies here — patents are complex documents and this page is not designed to provide legal advice. There is another reason you might want to STOP here. There are a lot of IP intense organizations that don't want their scientists and technologists reading patents. Not because they are hard to read or vocabulary dense or because there are other more productive uses of their time, but because of something called "inequitable conduct." Without going into the legal mumbo jumbo, an inventor has an obligation for the truthful disclosure of information they know about prior art when they file a patent applications for a new invention. If a court finds inequitable conduct in obtaining a patent, the patent can be invalidated (Yikes). Many organizations worry that sometime in the far and distant future some ugly patent matter might unfold. The evil guys on the other side of the table might find out that back in 1998 you skimmed through some patent, maybe to do a book report on an inventor for your kid's school project. The patent that you skimmed might have had an impact on the patent matter and you didn't disclose it when the patent application was filed. (Gotcha.) The evil bad guys on the other side of the table really think people who read patents remember all of this bulky dense stuff. So the solution to avoid this is to have the smartest people in the room, the person extraordinarily skilled in the art, the person most likely to know the prior art, to NOT read patents. (We think this is a silly and a throw back to an earlier century when it was easier to know the important patents in your field. At 5,000+ new patents a week it's impossible. The downside is that the people most aware of knowing where to find relevant prior art are discouraged from reading patents. The flip side of this argument is that the Examiners should know every patent ever granted in their area of expertise — equally as ridiculous. It's time for a kinder, gentler way to get the best prior art into patent applications. But we digress.)
So, if you are from one of those IP intense organizations STOP, don't read any patents until you check with the appropriate IP police. You've been warned. Don't get into trouble.
Ok, back to live action.
Important Patent Parts
Two Important Sets of Three
Patents have three major parts (and a bunch of bibliographic and classification data to help organize them.) The three parts are:
- Claims, and
- Specification (aka the Description.)
The claims are what the inventor owns. This is what they are claiming. The specification is supposed to teach someone, a person ordinarily skilled in the art (POSITA), how to make or practice the invention. Remember, that's the patent compact. The inventor gets exclusive rights to the patented invention in exchange for disclosing what it is and what it does.
Every specification starts with an important group of paragraphs:
- Background of the Invention,
- Summary of the Invention, and
- List of Figures.
The Background of the Invention describes the state of the art at the time the inventor made their invention. In a well written patent, this section provides helpful context on what the invention is about, what the state of the art is relative to the invention, and a description of the problems the new invention will solve.
The Summary of the Invention give you a high level overview of what the new invention is all about. What is the benefit or improvement of the new invention. What is new about it. How does it make an improvement over the current state of the art. The summary of the invention can help you understand what the patent is about before you have to dig into the deep technical stuff.
Then there is a list of figures, the figures that the inventors are using to explain the invention. The list of figures can be a good source of information on what a patent is about. A well done list of figures and the way the inventor describes the pictures of their invention convey a lot of information about what the invention is about.
Reading the Patent
Step 1: Read the Title and the Abstract.
The title is the up to 500 characters of the the invention is called. It is supposed to be short and descriptive. Some titles are short and to the point — bolt, hat, pen. Others are examples of how smart inventors and their patent attorneys can't follow instructions.
The Abstract is a the summary of the invention that indicates the technical field to which the invention pertains. It is supposed to be drafted in a way that allows the clear understanding of the technical problem, the gist of the solution of that problem through the invention, and the principal use or uses of the invention. The abstract is supposed to be between 50 and 150 words long. We look at the abstract as the patent elevator speech, a marketing statement for the patent — what is this thing, what does it do, what problem does it solve.
Step 2: Skip the Claims for Now. Go to the Description
Read the Description until you hit the end of the list of figures. This is where the high level information is, the Background of the Invention and the Summary of the Invention. Be warned though. One of the new strategies for making patents even more broad is to provide as little useful information in this section as possible. Being really general means the inventor doesn't to speak to a specific problem the patent is solving but instead uses mushy, general terms to describe the invention. Some inventors view this technique as a way to avoid getting tripped up 18 years from now when they try to wrap a patent around some new product what wasn't even an idea when the patent application was filed. Broad language helps an inventor extend the reach of their patent.
Step 3: Check Out the List of Figures
The last item before the detailed technical description of the invention is the List of Figures. Have a look at the list and then browse the figures themselves. Sometimes a picture is much more useful than a really long list of hard to read claims. When you are working in your own area of expertise, the figures can help you cut to the chase. We work with engineers who always read the names of the figures and browse the figures first. For visual people, the figures are a good place to start. If it looks interesting go back and read the Background and Summary of the Invention sections.
Step 4: Now Read Claim 1.
The claims are what the inventor actually invented and what a patent protects. It is what the inventor has the exclusive rights to. Even though there are "patent lawsuits", once you get into the meat of the matter, the cases cover how a product infringes a specific claim or claims of the patent, not the whole patent. (Except for that inequitable conduct busiess above.) This is why patents usually have a phrase like, "We Claim" right before the list of claims starts.
A claim is ONE SENTENCE. It starts with a capital letter and ends with a period. The inventor distills their invention down to that one sentence. If a patent has 20 claims than the patent covers 20 inventions. (This is an over simplification but this is how it works.) Inventors tend to put the most important claim first. They don't have to but they usually do. Read claim 1 and remember all that stuff your high school English teacher taught you about punctuation because here it counts. If you are a grammar junkie, patents use the Oxford comma — a cat, a dog, and a mouse not a cat, a dog and a mouse. The extra comma matters. It is important to claim construction. Aside from getting a degree in a scientific field and getting through law school, passing the Bar Exam and the Patent Bar, good patent attorneys know a lot about grammar and semi-colons, aka claim construction.
After you've read Claim 1 browse around and have a look at the other claims to see what they describe. For folks that are new to patents, claims come in two flavors — independent and dependent. If a claim has a phrase like, "The system as claimed in Claim 1,", it is a dependent claim. You need to read them together to understand the full scope of the invention being claimed. If there is no reference to another claim then the claim is called an independent claim. Independent claims stand by themselves.
Step 5: Browse Around
This is a list of some of the stuff we browse when trying to get the gist of a patent. Everyone has their own approach but here are a few you might want to check out is the patent looks interesting.
Check out the inventors and the assignees. Who invented it? Where are they from? Who owns this thing?
Compare the filed date to the grant date. It will let you know how long it took to get the patent. Short can mean someone paid for accelerated examination. Long can mean a lot of things. Sometimes things that are really novel take a while before the technology sinks in. Sometimes it's because the examiner and the applicant have gone back and forth on issues.
Check out the prior art — References Cited. When you look at the patents in the USPTO Full Text Database you can also click on the Referenced By to see how many other inventors cited the patent. Good quality prior art and a useful mix of patent prior art and non-patent prior art, also called Non-Patent Literature (NPL) by patentistas. Prior art can come from anywhere. The Dick Tracy comic strip was cited as patent prior art.
How many claims does the patent have. The table below shows you the average number of claims on different types of patents for the week of December 31, 2013. These numbers are a good indicator of what the average numbers are based on type. Some patents like those in chemistry and molecular biology may have only one claim. Others, like US 8,562,424 — Gameplay-altering portable wagering media — basically a new type of interactive poker chip, has 319 claims. Sometimes a lot of claims is just overkill. Other times, like the case of the Gameplay-altering portable wagering media, are indicative of something really novel.
|Broad Business Methods||20.4|
If you are looking at the PDF version of the patent, check to see if any of the prior art references have s to the left. This indicates that the prior art reference was added by the Examiner. A lot of patentistas believe that when an examiner adds a prior art reference it narrows the scope of the new invention. Others believe that the examiner has a core set of seminal prior art that applies to the domain and is enhancing the quality of the patent by adding this other material. If you decide to read the patent the prior art references yourself, you can make your own judgement.
If you want to learn what other patents USPTO puts in the same category check out the classifications and how many are there. The more classifications, the more complex the invention. There are lots of classifications — the US Patent Classification which is in the process of being replaced by the Cooperative Patent Classification System which was developed using the International Patent Classification System. (Sorry.) If you'd like to learn more about how to use classification systems, check out our Classification Primer. If you look at a patent at Google Patents, most of the classifications have links to the definition of what the classification means. USPTO's patent site doesn't have these links.
Once you've finished your quick read you can decide if you want to make a cup of tea or secure your personal favorite deep reading beverage before grabbing a highlighter and reading the whole patent. Oh and back to the disclaimer, patents are complex documents, (and really awful for reading) so you need to read them carefully and make a decision on whether you think you need to add a patent professional to your actio plan.
An Example — The Single Action Ordering System
Here is an example from one of the most important patents for on-line shopping — Amazon's One Click Shopping patent — US Patent 5,690,411. Pop open the patent in another window and have a quick look.
Step 1: Read the Title and the Abstract.
The title: "Method and system for placing a purchase order via a communications network", pretty generic but descriptive. An invention for buying something over a network.
The Abstract reads:
A method and system for placing an order to purchase an item via the Internet. The order is placed by a purchaser at a client system and received by a server system. The server system receives purchaser information including identification of the purchaser, payment information, and shipment information from the client system. The server system then assigns a client identifier to the client system and associates the assigned client identifier with the received purchaser information. The server system sends to the client system the assigned client identifier and an HTML document identifying the item and including an order button. The client system receives and stores the assigned client identifier and receives and displays the HTML document. In response to the selection of the order button, the client system sends to the server system a request to purchase the identified item. The server system receives the request and combines the purchaser information associated with the client identifier of the client system to generate an order to purchase the item in accordance with the billing and shipment information whereby the purchaser effects the ordering of the product by selection of the order button.
Step 2: Skip the Claims for Now. Go to the Description
The background of the invention says,
Since the purchaser-specific order information contains sensitive information (e.g., a credit card number), both vendors and purchasers want to ensure the security of such information. Security is a concern because information transmitted over the Internet may pass through various intermediate computer systems on its way to its final destination. The information could be intercepted by an unscrupulous person at an intermediate system. To help ensure the security of the sensitive information, various encryption techniques are used when transmitting such information between a client computer system and a server computer system. Even though such encrypted information can be intercepted, because the information is encrypted, it is generally useless to the interceptor. Nevertheless, there is always a possibility that such sensitive information may be successfully decrypted by the interceptor. Therefore, it would be desirable to minimize the sensitive information transmitted when placing an order.
The Summary of the Invention says,
...the present invention provides a method and system for ordering an item from a client system. The client system is provided with an identifier that identifies a customer. The client system displays information that identifies the item and displays an indication of an action (e.g., a single action such as clicking a mouse button) that a purchaser is to perform to order the identified item. In response to the indicated action being performed, the client system sends to a server system the provided identifier and a request to order the identified item. The server system uses the identifier to identify additional information needed to generate an order for the item and then generates the order.
Ordering with one click.
Step 3: Check Out the List of Figures
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
FIGS. 1A-1C illustrate single-action ordering in one embodiment of the present invention.
FIG. 2 is a block diagram illustrating an embodiment of the present invention.
FIG. 3 is a flow diagram of a routine that enables single-action ordering for a customer.
FIG. 4 is a flow diagram of a routine to generate a Web page in which single-action ordering is enabled.
FIG. 5 is a flow diagram of a routine which processes a single-action order.
FIG. 6 is a flow diagram of a routine for generating a single-action order summary Web page.
FIG. 7 is a flow diagram of a routine that implements an expedited order selection algorithm.
FIGS. 8A-8C illustrate a hierarchical data entry mechanism in one embodiment.
Step 4: Now Read Claim 1.
We claim: 1. A method of placing an order for an item comprising: under control of a client system, displaying information identifying the item; and in response to only a single action being performed, sending a request to order the item along with an identifier of a purchaser of the item to a server system; under control of a single-action ordering component of the server system, receiving the request; retrieving additional information previously stored for the purchaser identified by the identifier in the received request; and generating an order to purchase the requested item for the purchaser identified by the identifier in the received request using the retrieved additional information; and fulfilling the generated order to complete purchase of the item whereby the item is ordered without using a shopping cart ordering model.
First, the claim describes the same things we've read in the patent's abstract, the background of the invention, and the summary of the invention. If you are on the hunt for patents discussing e-commerce ordering systems, this one might be a good one to add to the pile for a full read. Second, what is this about without using a shopping cart ordering model? Interesting things show up in the claims that aren't exactly the same as the other information we've read so far. Hold that thought.
Next check and see what kinds of features are in the dependent claims:
2. The method of claim 1 wherein the displaying of information includes displaying information indicating the single action.
3. The method of claim 1 wherein the single action is clicking a button.
4. The method of claim 1 wherein the single action is speaking of a sound.
So basically we have the idea of what other ways the invention works — by clicking a button, by having a visual cue, or by saying words like, "Buy Now".
Ok, the patent guys are screaming gotcha. This patent was reexamined and Claim 1, which says without using a shopping cart ordering model, was altered on reexamination. But here we are trying to decide what a patent is about and whether we want to invest the time to read the entire patent. If you add the patent to your read pile, you will see the note indicating that the patent had been reexamined. If you decide to read the patent, make sure to read the Reexamination certificate. They are always an adventure.
Step 5: Browse Around
There are lot of interesting things on this patent. The first named inventor is Peri Hartman, but the second inventor listed is Jeff Bezos, ecommerce luminary. The prior art references two earlier patents from Mr. Bezos. If you look at the image of the reexamination certificate you will see that the list of prior art exploded when the patent was reexamined. Check it out, if you shop on line it's fascinating. A browse around will help you quickly assess a patent's relevance to your search.