By Tennell Lockett
In today’s tech world, many people are generally familiar with patents: they protect inventions. However, it came to my attention, recently, that many people have never seen a patent, much less read a patent for comprehension. Moreover, even fewer really understand how a patent is structured or how a patent is generally to be read. In response, I thought I would provide an overview on the anatomy of patents. I cannot emphasize enough, however, that patents are extremely nuanced, complex legal documents. If you have any questions about what a patent covers or discloses, you should contact a qualified IP attorney.
A patent has three basic sections: the specification, the drawings and the claims. The claims are the enumerated paragraphs that typically appear toward the end of the patent* and are preceded by language similar to: “What is claimed is.” Drawings typically appear as figures and usually appear before the specification. You can think of the specification as everything else. You can find examples of patents at www.uspto.com or http://www.google.com/patents?hl=en.
Patents may include drawings to assist in demonstrating the function or operation of technologies in the specification. Specifications usually make liberal reference to the drawings. Drawings typically appear as figures in a patent, and are designated as, for example, Fig. 1, Fig. 2, etc.
The bulk of the specification usually follows the drawings. The main purpose of the specification is to publicly disclose the patentee’s invention and to enable a person skilled in the relevant art to practice the invention. The specification does NOT specify what the patentee claims as his protectable invention (nor do the drawings). Thus, while the specification contains valuable context and content concerning the claimed invention, the specification alone cannot tell you whether you are (or are not) violating a patentee’s rights. The specification typically contains a number of different subparts, including a title, an abstract, the invention background, an invention summary, a description of any drawings, and a detailed description of the invention. The specification may include a number of embodiments of the invention. For the most part, these embodiments are exemplary and should not be understood to limit the claimed invention. For example, if the only embodiment in a specification discloses a car, a patent claiming a “motorized vehicle” should not, without more, be read to only cover cars.
Claims set forth and define the scope of the patentee’s ownership interest. Claims are typically broken into discrete sections, called elements. Each claim element must be supported by the specification and the specification must be consulted to provide meaning to the claims. Importantly, a patentee can define its own claim terms in the specification. So, while a claim that claims a “motorized vehicle” may appear clear on its face, it may not have its apparent meaning if the patentee, in the specification, discloses that “for purposes of this invention, the term motorized vehicle means and refers to cars and only cars.” Claims may be independent and dependent. As the names suggest, independent claims start and finish with the elements recited in that claim. Dependent claims are said to “depend from” some incorporated claim, and incorporate the elements of the incorporated claim along with additional elements. Claims may cover a number of things, including apparatuses (e.g., a device) and methods (e.g., a process). To determine whether a patentee’s patent rights are infringed, each element of the patent’s claims (properly construed), or its equivalents, are compared with each element of the accused device or process.
* At the U.S.P.T.O.’s website, claims are included toward the front of the patent.