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Why Patent Applications are Hard to Read

When you want to learn about a new subject, where do you go? To a journal article? To the Wikipedia? Which source provides the clearest explanation of the subject?

The Wikipedia often gives a good overall explanation of a subject while a journal article will flesh out details or supply a more academic discussion. These are the two most common sources for information. But did you know that the patent databases are also supposed to “further the state of the art”? This is one reason why they are publicly available.

But, people don’t usually look to patents to learn about a new subject. Why? In large part, because the patent publications are not particularly easy to understand. Patents describe inventions and do so in the broadest terms, to get broad protection. Because patents are legal documents, they are often written to describe all the possible ways to implement each part. This makes it hard to understand what the inventor built.

Moreover, most patents are not written with the lay person in mind. They are usually aimed at either a technical person or a patent examiner - people who know the technical field and understand the patent writing style.

This is a mistake. The patent examiner does not give the final word. The judge and/or the jury who sit on any potential infringement case are the final arbiters. They are generally not technically savvy. If a patent is too technical or too confusing, the judge and jury will have a hard time reviewing it.

This says to me that the “audience” for patents (i.e. the audience to whom the patents should be written) is not the patent examiner or your colleagues or anyone at your company, but the people that review patents and make decisions about them. The decision makers are the investors, who are technically savvy but may not be in your field; or the judge or jury, who are intelligent but generally have not studied your field or have not studied it in depth. These people will decide the worth of your invention. Therefore, you should direct the patent to these people.

Consider how you describe a work idea to different people. To your colleagues, you will say “Remember that problem we were working on last week? Well, I did (whatever you did).” To the management committee, you will describe your invention as it affects how the company can operate. To your young children, you will first describe the general problem you had and then you’ll explain the new idea in very simple terms.

If you are pitching your idea to a venture capitalist, you’ll first survey the field and then you’ll explain your invention in broad strokes, showing how it solves a problem the field has. You will generally avoid the specific details.

Like in the pitch to the venture capitalist, you first need to bring the reader of the patent to a general understanding of the previous state of the art. You can then start explaining your invention. You start with very simple, broad strokes and then you add detail. You only give the alternatives once you have finished the first, simple explanation.

The result is a patent, or patent application, that is clearly written while covering all the possibilities. It gives you a document that everyone can understand, from the judge and jury, to the venture capitalist, to your management committee and to your colleagues. It gives the patent examiner a clear explanation as well, which is important if s/he is to feel comfortable allowing your very broad claims!

An added benefit is that, with clearly written patents and patent applications, the information contained in the patent system may become more easily accessible.

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