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
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
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
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
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
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
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."