Industry Watch

Law: Innovative help for innovators

Patterson Thuente IP partner Amy Salmela explains the Inventors Assistance Program

By Tom Johnson

There comes a time in every independent inventor's career when he or she must struggle through the notoriously dense patent application process, sifting through binders of regulations many inches thick to stake a legal claim on his or her idea. It's an intimidating but necessary process that the Inventors Assistance Program, part of LegalCORPS, a pro bono legal network for small and nonprofit businesses in Minnesota, is working to make more accessible.

Since mid-2011, the Inventors Assistance Program has matched inventors with qualified patent attorneys free of charge. Minnesota's program has been so successful that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has used it as a model for launching similar projects in other states.

Amy Salmela, a patent attorney and partner with the law firm Patterson Thuente IP, is a founder of the Inventors Assistance Program. We asked her about the program‘s origins, objectives, and future.

How did the Inventors Assistance Program start?

Salmela: The impetus for the program came from the director of the USPTO, David Kappos, during a visit to Minnesota a couple of years ago, after he mentioned that he'd love to have a way to create a patent law pro bono program. Pro bono services are important to the legal profession, but historically there haven't been many opportunities for patent attorneys to help in their area of expertise. There was a strong desire among the intellectual property community to help the entrepreneurs with great ideas who don't have the resources to access a patent attorney.

What are the objectives of the Program?

Hopefully our participants will get a patent, start a business, create some jobs, and help the economy. That's the ultimate goal. We don't want to help people get patents just for the sake of getting patents - we hope that they can do something with them. A lot of big ideas in this country get their start in a garage, and if some of those people are out there now, wouldn't it be great if we can help them?

Why is it important for an inventor to have professional legal counsel?

It might be the understatement of the day to say that the U.S. Patent system is complicated. If you don't know how to navigate that system, it's easy to get frustrated. Historically, without an attorney, an inventor would have to file an application themselves, which can be difficult both for them and the examiner at the patent office. There are things that an inventor can do or say in their application that has an impact on the value of their patent and what kind scope they're able to get. An inventor might not realize that the things they're saying will have these effects like an attorney would.

How do you expect the Inventor's Assistance Program will evolve?

Within Minnesota itself there's a lot of opportunity for us to expand and grow. We'd like to continue to find ways to reach out to the independent inventor community and not be so reliant on referrals from the patent office. We've also been looking at helping in the very first step, writing original provisional applications, which we currently don't do.