What is a 'Patent Agent'

A patent agent 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. There are more than 10,000 licensed patent agents in the United States, while there are about 30,000 licensed patent attorneys. One can search for a licensed patent agent at the USPTO’s website.

BREAKING DOWN 'Patent Agent'

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 to save money by paying for only 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 DIY 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 representing him- or herself, the USPTO will only communicate with the agent regarding the filed patent application.

Patent Agent Requirements

Patent agents are not required to have completed law school or passed the state bar exam, but must have passed the USPTO’s “patent bar exam,” 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 are PhDs. Patent agents sometimes work for law firms and assist patent attorneys in preparing cases, but 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 and 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. 

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