What Is a Patent Attorney?

A patent attorney is a lawyer with expertise in intellectual property law pertaining to securing and protecting an inventor’s property rights. Patent attorneys have passed a federal exam referred to as the “patent bar exam” that grants them a license to represent clients before the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). They have also passed the state bar exam that all attorneys must pass.

Patents are granted to inventors of unique, useful, and non-obvious inventions. Other countries may have different certifications or qualifications for patent attorneys, or have patent processes that may require no more than an individual with general legal credentials.

Key Takeaways

  • Patent attorneys are lawyers who have passed the United States Patent and Trademark Office patent agent registration examination and have expertise in patent law.
  • Patent attorneys are different from patent agents and intellectual property attorneys because unlike agents they must pass the bar exam in at least one state or territory in the U.S., and unlike IP attorneys, they specialize in patents, not other forms of intellectual property broadly.
  • Patent law is important to securing the benefits, like the ability to limit competition, that come from intellectual property rights.

Understanding Patent Attorneys

Patent attorneys are experts in preparing and filing patent applications and representing clients in court for patent-related matters such as infringement, licensing, and re-examination. They must also be experts in one or more technical areas important to understanding a client's inventions, such as biotechnology or computer science.

Patent attorneys can also give patentability opinions in court. Patent attorneys must be admitted to a state or territory bar association or that of the District of Columbia. The most U.S. patent agents in total numbers live in California followed by New York and Texas. The state with the greatest number of patent agents per capita is Delaware.

The USPTO registration examination, formally known as the Examination for Registration to Practice in Patent Cases Before the United States Patent and Trademark Office (or the "patent bar exam"), 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. For more, see the USPTO's Registration Examination informational page.

Patent Attorney vs. Patent Agent

One should not confuse a patent attorney with a patent agent. In the United States, patent agents can perform many of the same tasks as patent attorneys, including representing clients before the USPTO, but not in other legal settings, such as prosecuting a patent infringement.

While you can file a patent application yourself, the USPTO recommends hiring a patent attorney or agent. If you need a patent attorney, click here to use the USPTO website's search list of those licensed to practice before the USPTO. The patent office does not recommend patent attorneys or regulate patent attorneys’ fees, however.

Patent Attorney vs. Intellectual Property Attorney

In addition, while patents are a type of intellectual property, you should not hire an intellectual property attorney when you really need a patent attorney. Intellectual property attorneys have not passed the patent bar exam, are not licensed by the USPTO, and do not necessarily have specific or technical expertise related to patents.