Every inventor worth his salt should familiarize himself with the non-obviousness requirement in patent applications. Otherwise, even a novel and original invention will not be granted a patent by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). But what exactly does the USPTO mean by non-obviousness and how can you meet it?
But first, we have to emphasize that while novelty and non-obviousness are different in many ways, the two terms often overlap in a practical sense. The reason for it is that both can be measured in terms of the absence of prior art.
What Makes an Invention Non-obvious?
Unfortunately, the standards for determining the obviousness and non-obviousness of inventions are as clear as mud. The USPTO patent examiners – and the judges in patent litigations, for that matter – have plenty of leeway in making related decisions, a current reality that inventors should be aware of.
If you’re an inventor, keep in mind that it doesn’t necessarily demand genius-like craftsmanship, originality, and vision to create a non-obvious design. In many cases, it only requires the extraordinary ability to visualize ordinary things in a new or different manner.
There are times when combining things is easily apparent and there are times when it isn’t. The requirement of obviousness then becomes trickier than it sounds, especially as obviousness itself is both a subjective and objective (i.e., fact-based) inquiry.
But there’s a way to determine if your invention meets the non-obviousness requirement. Basically, an invention can be considered as obvious when other persons knowledgeable about the field where it belongs will look at it and consider it to be generally known. The known aspect isn’t exactly known per se but will be known if several references are combined.
How Can Non-obviousness Be Demonstrated?
Keep in mind that the inventor has the burden of proof, so to speak, in proving the non-obviousness of his invention. This can be done in several ways including the following:
There are other ways to meet the non-obviousness test, too. If your design has been or continues to be a commercial success; it has unexpected visual appearance; it has been copied by others; it has been praised for its originality by others in the field where its utility is evident; it was copied by others but they were unsuccessful at generating the same results as the invention; or it was created when others said it couldn’t be done.
Do these concepts make for more confusion? If you answered yes, then you should consider hiring a patent agent or lawyer or agent with a comprehensive experience in meeting the five requirements of patent approval.
Filing a trademark application isn’t for the faint-hearted, so to speak, because of the time, energy and effort involved in understanding the trademark law, meeting the requirements of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and dealing with the subsequent actions (e.g., issuance of Office Action). For this reason, you should seriously consider hiring an attorney to take care of these matters in your behalf.
What can an experienced lawyer, particularly one with extensive experience in trademark laws, do for you?
Provide Appropriate Legal Advice
Of course, you can file the application on your own and request the USPTO examining attorney to provide tips that will expedite your application. But the USPTO attorney cannot provide legal advice even if he wants to because otherwise it will be a conflict of interest.
The trademark attorney, in contrast, will provide legal advice regarding your application and its related issues. You can get answers to questions like, “Is the mark protectable by the trademark laws? Are the class of products and/or services that the marks apply to identifiable? Are you able to take appropriate action when the USPTO refuses to register the mark?”
Think of your attorney as your main man in ensuring that your mark becomes registered and protected from infringement by others.
Conduct Searches on the Database
Again, you can search the state and federal databases for similar trademarks as the mark you’re seeking registration for. But it’s such a time-consuming process that you likely won’t have the time and energy for, perhaps not even the patience. Besides, you will likely have other business matters to attend to.
With an attorney on board, you can delegate the task to the professional. Your attorney will search the USPTO database of registered trademarks at the federal level, as well as other databases including the state registration database and the common law unregistered trademarks database. The comprehensive search is a must because even non-registered trademarks similar to your mark and used for selling products and/or services related to yours may well prevent you from registering, using and profiting from your mark, no matter if you think it was your original idea.
Protect Your Trademark Rights
Your attorney can also provide information that will deepen your understanding of your rights and responsibilities as a trademark owner. You will also be provided with relevant advice about the best ways to monitor and enforce your rights and responsibilities, especially in terms of others infringing on your mark. You should also remember that you may also be charged of infringing on other people’s trademarks and your attorney can provide legal assistance on this matter.
The crucial role of your attorney doesn’t stop with the initial application. You can also rely on him or her for meeting the registration maintenance documents, which should be filed on a regular basis. You can then maintain ownership over your mark, a must if you want to continue profiting from it.
The idea is the heart of the invention. You, the inventor, then must be extremely careful about sharing your novel idea with other people, even with people who can provide assistance to take it from an abstract idea to a real product (i.e., prototype). You should be particularly careful when you haven’t submit your patent application for it yet.
Fortunately, there are ways to talk about your non-patented invention and protect it from being stolen by others.
Learn the Law
You have to learn the law that applies to patents even before you think about discussing your ideas with every Tom, Dick and Harry who cares to listen. You don’t have to go to law school to understand the patent laws but you should strive to learn the basics, such as the types of disclosures that you can and cannot make while still protecting your idea.
You may want to present your idea to a group of angel investors. You may also put it to beta testing so as to test it marketability and profitability. You may want to write a white paper about it. Regardless of what you want to do about your idea, you have to learn the law.
Have a Confidentiality Agreement
Also known as a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), a confidentiality makes it clear – and in writing, too, for good measure – between both parties that your invention should be treated as confidential information. As such, the third parties with the privilege to know about it must not disclose or release any information about it to others without your express permission. This is a good idea if you’re talking about it to potential investors, partners, and/or vendors.
But remember that an NDA isn’t acceptable to everybody, especially where large investment firms and corporations are concerned. Indeed, you may even be asked to sign an agreement wherein you agree that your idea isn’t a secret at all so the organization has legal protection from liability!
Avoid Online Sharing
If you’re the type who likes to share nearly everything about your life online, then you should start cutting back if you have a brilliant idea that can qualify for a patent. When you post your ideas online, whether it’s on your website or on a social media site, you’re exposing yourself to two threats.
First, your idea may be stolen by your connections – or by the friends of your friends up to the sixth degree – and then run with it. You may have come up with the novel idea and somebody else profited from or was recognized for it.
Second, you’re essentially giving the social media sites where your ideas were posted the right to use it anyway they want. Read Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, particularly on the topic of intellectual property, and you will understand.
The best thing to do: File a provisional patent for your invention!
Keep in mind that not every initial application for a trademark will be granted approval. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), specifically the examining attorney assigned to your trademark application, can issue an Office Action outlining the substantive reasons for trademark refusal of your application. This brings us to the question: What are the possible substantive reasons that your trademark application can be refused?
Likelihood of Confusion
Keep in mind that the USPTO will conduct a search of its database for conflicting marks only after an initial application has been filed. The examining attorney will determine whether your trademark being applied for has a similar one either still pending or already registered in the USPTO database. The process can take several months so patience is necessary.
The marks and the related products and/or services between your mark and the marks of other entities don’t have to be exactly the same for conflict or confusion to be considered. Instead, it’s considered sufficient if both the marks and their related products and/or services are similar in nature. The similarity should be such that consumers will likely mistakenly believe that both of them come from the same source.
The similarity can be on anything from sound and appearance to meaning. These can include phonetic equivalents, T.J. Chicken and Tee-Jay Chicken; similar appearance even when one uses another stylized; and meaning like “Lupo” and “Wolf” with both having similar images.
The USPTO’s examining attorney will also refuse trademark registration if it merely describes a quality, ingredient, function, characteristic, purpose, or feature of the product and/or service. For example, the mark “Creamy Yogurt” or “World’s Best Bagels” are unacceptable because these merely describe the products instead of being a distinctive brand.
The mark registration application will also be refused if the mark itself misdescribes a quality, ingredient, function, characteristic, purpose, or feature of the product and/or service; and the misrepresentation being conveyed is possible. Examples include “THC Tea” for tea-based beverages without THC.
Both the merely descriptive and deceptively misdescriptive grounds for refusal also applies to primarily geographical circumstances. There are several instances when it happens including:
With these strict requirements, you are well-advised to hire an experienced trademark attorney and consultant so that your initial application will have a higher chance of being approved.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) conducts an intensive examination of every trademark application submitted by individuals, groups and organizations. Keep in mind that registering your trademark, which can be an image, words or sound, can be a challenging task because of the strict requirements and process, especially if you’re taking it on your own.
We suggest that you hire an experienced trademark agent or attorney to handle the dirty work, so to speak. But it also pays to know the basics of the initial application process since it’s your trademark and the rights and responsibilities that come with it rests squarely on your shoulders.
Select Your Mark Properly
If you want to start the trademark registration process on the right foot, you have to select your mark properly. You have to choose it with extreme care since not every mark can be registered with the USPTO and not every mark can also be legally protected. In case of the latter, a mark may be unacceptable as a basis for a legal claim by its owner who wants to prevent others from using a similar mark on related products and/or services.
You don’t want to make the rookie mistake of submitting an initial application for your trademark only to find out that it cannot be registered. Aside from checking that, indeed, it can be registered, you have to determine the ease and effectiveness of protecting it based on its strength.
You have to take note, too, that USPTO isn’t responsible for the enforcement of your trademark – its primary function is to register trademarks and patents. You, the trademark owner, have the primary and exclusive responsibility for its enforcement including when others are using it to their commercial advantage.
You should also take note of the acceptable format of marks before submission to the USPTO. You must also precisely identify your products and/or services that the mark will be applied on.
Search the Database
Before you file a trademark application, you should also search the USPTO database for similar marks. Your main goal: To determine whether another individual or organization has already claimed trademark rights similar to your mark and used them on related products and/or services through a federal registration.
A clearance search will save costs on trademark registration, too, since the USPTO generally doesn’t grant refunds. Thus, even if your initial application isn’t approved for one reason or another, a refund check won’t be in your mail.
You must also know that any and all personal information submitted to the USPTO at any point in the application and registration process becomes public record. Your full name, phone number and e-mail address, and street address will be part of the public database, which may or may not be a cause for concern on your part.
Yes, you may have a unique trademark – or at least, you think you have it. But before making brash decisions, you should take a step back and remember that the Patent and Trademark Office doesn’t mess around when it comes to the registration process. You may think that it’s easy enough, especially after reading countless articles on the subject matter, but it isn’t because of the strict filing requirements and the bureaucratic procedures.
Arguably, the worst mistakes that you can do before filing a trademark application are these two things.
Not Hiring An Experienced Trademark Agent or Attorney
Keep in mind that the trademark application process is a legal proceeding protected by the trademark laws. As such, individuals, groups and organizations can be subjected to penalties including fines, surcharges and suspensions in case of violations of trademark laws.
As such, it’s of crucial importance to hire an experienced agent or attorney with a valid license to practice trademark law. Better yet, hire an experienced trademark agent or attorney with a proven track record of success in the field, if you want to increase your chance of success in getting your trademark registered.
Of course, you can file the application on your own but there are many pitfalls to such a do-it-yourself approach. You may well find that the documentary requirements can be voluminous and stringent while the process can be bureaucratic. You won’t likely have the right knowledge and skills to deal with the legal process and, thus, make a mess of it. Your trademark application can be delayed and its registration jeopardized.
Not Checking That Your Mark Can Be Registered
Your trademark application must be in compliance with many legal requirements before it can be approved for registration. You don’t just fill in the forms, whether you’re filing online or in paper, even if you’re in a hurry to claim the mark (i.e., competitors are using a similar one), lest you find yourself in a bind.
In this regard, you have to ask yourself several questions including:
Your trademark agent or attorney can answer these questions and provide guidance on several related matters. With your trademark registered, you have the assurance that your brand names including the slogans and logos used on your products and/or services will be protected from unauthorized use by other entities.