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What They Do

Insider Info

Today, patent examiners are at the very center of the latest inventions. From the latest high-tech machinery to the newest cold remedies, chances are they will see it before anyone else.

A patent examiner works for the government. There are no private patent examiners in North America. In the U.S., they work for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, or the PTO for short.

Their job is to review new patents to see if they are genuinely "new." They have to be part researcher to find out what may be out there that is the same. They are also part scientist to understand and interpret the complex patent applications.

They must also be part lawyer to ensure the wording and description can pass legal scrutiny. And finally, they are part writer to write a very accurate and detailed patent describing the invention.

The research will generally be done in the patent office's own files. If the applicant wishes to patent it in more than one country, then other sources are looked at, too. Generally, each country will look into its own patent files to make sure if a patent is unique or not.

If the research shows a patent already exists, the examiner will not allow the patent application. The applicant will often argue the case. This is where the examiner may go to a special court to present the reasons why the application is denied.

The examiner must possess excellent communication skills. Their presentation to the applicant must be clear and accurate so that there is no misunderstanding.

Leonard Heyman is a patent agent who used to work for the U.S. PTO. "Additional responsibilities include assisting the public in searching for 'prior art' in your area," he says. Prior art means patents relating to the same general field as the application being examined.

Most patent examiners have a scientific background. Their work will be narrowly focused on what they know best.

An electronics engineer will study and research patent applications for electronic devices and procedures. A computer scientist may work on software. Other computer experts work on the new hardware applications. Many patent examiners can work in teams on similar types of patent applications.

"The reality is that more than half the time, an examiner spends his or her time manually searching in the 'shoe,' the PTO's archive of patents, or using automated search systems to find prior art," says Heyman.

Someone who is physically challenged should have no problems. "I have heard that accommodations have been made for those in wheelchairs so that the files are all within reach," adds Heyman. "Most of the other work is done behind a desk."

Most of the procedures they learn at the patent office will be taught on site. Before they become full patent examiners, they must take a lot of on-the-job training.

They will work alongside senior personnel, who will show them the proper functioning of their department. They will then have to pass a government exam before they are fully qualified patent examiners.

Hours of work can vary. Dean Cornstubble used to work at the U.S. PTO. "Their work schedule is flextime," he says. "Overtime is paid, but is tightly scrutinized."

Patent examiner Marsha Black says the hours are pretty flexible. "The working day is 7.5 hours. You are required to be present during core hours [9:30 am to 3:30 p.m.]. A compressed workweek, part time and work at home are also possible."

Leo Boudreau of the U.S. PTO started in 1969 as a novice examiner. "After six years working as an apprentice and reporting to experienced examiners, I was granted the authority to make judgments on my own about what was and was not patentable," he says.

"I became what is known as a primary examiner. It still takes six years to reach that lofty plateau."

At a Glance

Make sure new inventions are really unique

  • Patent examiners need excellent communication skills
  • You'll be working for the government
  • Most patent examiners have a scientific background


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