What Is a Patent Agent?

A patent agent, also known as a patent practitioner, is a professional licensed by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to advise on and assist inventors with patent applications. Patent agents may also provide patentability opinions and help with the preparation and filing of documentation related to patent applications.

Patent agents assist inventors with completing and submitting all patent-application paperwork, searching for prior art, writing the inventor's legally enforceable claims of ownership to the invention, revising rejected patent applications, and deciding when it's best to abandon an application. In the U.S., there are roughly 45,000 people on the list of registered patent attorneys and agents, with slightly less than 34,000 of them also licensed to practice law. Patent attorneys are patent agents who also practice law. One can search for a licensed patent agent at the USPTO's website.

Key Takeaways

  • Patent agents help inventors prepare, file, and see patent applications become registered patents in the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
  • In the U.S., roughly 45,000 people serve as patent agents.
  • Patent agents must be licensed by the USPTO in order to practice and represent clients before that body.

Understanding Patent Agents

The USPTO recommends that patent applicants hire a patent attorney or patent agent to assist with the application process because of its legal complexity. In the United States, patent agents can perform many of the same tasks as patent attorneys, including representing clients before the USPTO. However, unlike patent attorneys, patent agents cannot represent clients in other legal settings, such as prosecuting a patent infringement in court.

Patent Agent vs. Patent Attorney

A client who primarily needs help filing a patent application might hire a patent agent, instead of a patent attorney, and save money by only paying for the level of expertise required for the job. It is also possible, though not widely recommended, to prepare and file a patent application pro se, without direct professional assistance. Someone who has considerable free time and sufficient interest to learn about and manage the complexities of the process might choose the do-it-yourself route.

The right patent agent for a particular inventor should have both expertise in the subject-matter of the invention and experience working with the type of applicant, whether an individual or a large multinational corporation. If an inventor does hire a patent agent rather than represent themselves, the USPTO will only communicate with the agent regarding the filed patent application.

Patent Agent Requirements

While patent agents are not required to have completed law school or passed the state bar exam, they must have passed the USPTO's "patent bar exam," which is formally called the Examination for Registration to Practice in Patent Cases Before the United States Patent and Trademark Office. A patent agent might be a current or former university professor; many patent agents have advanced degrees. Patent agents sometimes work for law firms and assist patent attorneys in preparing cases. However, as agents, they cannot represent clients in a regular courtroom. 

The USPTO registration examination measures an applicant's knowledge of U.S. patent procedures, federal rules, regulations, and ethical guidelines. The exam, which features 100 multiple-choice questions, is offered year-round. Candidates have six hours to complete the test, which is divided into three-hour morning and afternoon sessions of 50 questions each.