The Duty of Disclosure When Filing A Patent Application

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By: Mark R. Malek

When people think of most areas of law, they generally picture an adversarial process.  In other words, most areas of law involve two parties in a dispute of some sort and each party having their side of the story that they want a judge (and sometimes a jury) to proclaim as being the correct side of the story.  That is not the case in the field of patent prosecution.  Although it may sometimes feel as though the patent Applicant is on one side of the fence fighting with the patent Examiner, it truly is not an adversarial process.  Instead, it can be better described as a cooperative process wherein the patent Examiner is working with the patent Applicant in order to determine the correct level of protection to be granted from the federal government.

In order to achieve this goal, patent law requires that a patent Applicant disclose the best mode of carrying out the invention, and disclose any prior art that they know of.  Many people come to me and indicate that they do not want to disclose everything about their invention, at which point I have a very serious conversation with the Applicant wherein I indicate that they must disclose all that they know about their invention.  The issue that many of the clients have, and I understand where they are coming from, is that they want to maintain some of their invention as a trade secret.  In patent law, that just about equates to having your cake and eating it to.

During patent prosecution, there is a trade off.  Essentially, the federal government will agree to grant you a right to exclude others from making, using, selling or offering to sell you invention in exchange for you disclosing everything you know about your invention, and also working with the patent office to ensure that the patent Examiner has all the relevant information in order to make a decision as to whether or not your invention is patentable.  This includes informing the patent Examiner of any prior art that you may know of.  That is regardless of whether or not the patent Examiner would have found the prior art during the search that is conducted during prosecution.

This article very much so simplifies the process, as well as the duty to disclose prior art, but there is one thing that I want to leave you with.  That is – your attorney is your ally in this process.  Your patent attorney should walk you through the process and should instruct you to disclose any information that could be considered prior art.  The risk you run of not disclosing relevant information is, in the worst case, invalidity of your patent and, in extreme circumstances, the possibility that a court finds that you engaged in inequitable conduct before the patent office, exposing you to potential liability.  The moral of the story is that you should never think it is a good idea to keep something from your attorney regarding your invention.  I will post additional articles about the importance of your relationship with your attorney and how the attorney-client privilege should encourage you to let your attorney in on everything that you know about your invention.

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