Prosecution is the bread and butter of the patent lawyer’s practice. Because you will likely spend most of your time during the workday reading and responding to office actions, honing skills specific to this aspect of your practice can have a major impact on how efficiently and effectively you are able to manage your practice overall.
Office action responses are where patent prosecutors get to “be lawyers.” Patent applications are very focused on the technology and, aside from the claims, could be written by a technical writer. But office action responses are where you will put your legal skills to work including:
- Analyzing the legal and technical merits of the examiner’s grounds for rejection
- Developing a strategy for responding to the rejections
- Researching cases, regulations, and MPEP sections that support your strategy
- Writing persuasive arguments that are supported by the law
- Negotiating with examiners to overcome the rejection
Your prosecution work will lay the foundation for the road you are to face with clients and examiners. Successful prosecution means issued patents. Unsuccessful prosecution will land you, your client, and the examiner in a never-ending cycle of rejections and responses.
Here is a crash course in drafting a winning office action response:
Many attorneys find it helpful to begin by reviewing an office action response example which can serve as a template for the office action response being prepared. Doing this will:
- Help you meet the expectations of examiners and clients about what an office action response should look like.
- Ensure you do not leave anything out that might trigger a technical office action saying your document was non-responsive.
- Improve your efficiency.
Developing a template for use now can save time with future office action responses as well. This means you can spend your clients’ time researching and writing effective arguments instead of formatting your document.
Reading is Fundamental
Perhaps you remember the slogan from children’s literacy campaigns that “reading is fundamental.” It is nowhere more true than patent prosecution.
The examiner wrote an office action laying out the reasons for rejection. You must read the office action carefully. If you miss, misread, or misinterpret a ground for rejection, you will needlessly extend prosecution by submitting an incomplete response.
Keep in mind that the easiest office action responses to write are those where the examiner has made a factual error. Examiners make mistakes, and they will occasionally misread your claims or the prior art. If you carefully read the office action and cited references, you can catch these mistakes and correct the examiner with a quick response.
Think Before You Write
You might be tempted to jump right into writing the office action response. But before you start writing, you have a few important decisions to make and some research to conduct.
Interviewing the Case
Nearly all experienced attorneys we have talked to recommend examiner interviews as among the most important tools at a prosecutor’s disposal. If you’re lucky, you might have a simple rejection, in which case, interviewing might allow you to overcome the rejection by examiner’s amendment without filing a response. More often, you will be dealing with a more complex rejection, in which case, interviewing can help you narrow down or eliminate some issues. Even if you are not able to get the examiner to agree on allowance during the interview, this will help you submit a more focused response.
Many aspects of how you approach the interview are a matter of personal style and preference, that you will refine over the course of practice. However, to get the most out of this important resource, we recommend that you are are:
- Early: some examiners are more forthcoming than others when it comes to what they are looking for to succeed. At minimum, conducting the interview early on in the prosecution will ensure that you don’t waste time pursuing a strategy that is far off track
- Well-prepared: make sure you have planned the discussion thoroughly in advance. You may want to consider preparing an agenda to share with the examiner.
- Non-confrontational: At minimum make sure you have checked your frustrations at the door, and counseled any inventors who will be attending to do the same. You may even wish to think of the interview as an opportunity to collaborate with the examiner.
We’ve compiled a list of tips to help you master your next examiner interview, which you can read in greater detail here.
Amending the Claims
There are important tradeoffs to be considered when it comes to amending the claims. Amending the claims, particularly in a way that reflects guidance offered by the examiner during an interview, can demonstrate that you take his or her concerns seriously and that you are willing to compromise to secure allowance.
However, it is best to proceed with some caution, as amending the claims can limit the scope of protection you are able to secure. If you can overcome a rejection without amending the claims, you and your client are almost always better off doing so.
There is no quick and easy way to make this decision. You will make this judgment on a case-by-case basis. However, it can be helpful to look at the examiner’s history to gain insight into what strategies have or have not, been successful in overcoming this rejection in the past. Using a tool like Arguminer, you can research the examiner’s past behavior to help you chart your path forward.
Developing Your Arguments
Many new patent attorneys are unsure about how long an office action response should be. More important than length is how well-thought-out your argument is. A succinct, well-composed argument may well be more successful than a response that is lengthy, but less focused, and may better capture and hold the examiner’s attention.
Remember, examiners have a limited amount of time to devote to each case on their docket. Burdening an examiner with a long, flowery argument will force the examiner to skim your office action response. A punchy argument will keep the examiner’s attention and allow the examiner to identify what you are arguing and how to respond.
At the same time, complex arguments can require more than a few paragraphs to develop. For example, a rejection under §101 will probably need to apply the Alice test and the examination guidelines to the case.
You have many sources for finding and developing arguments. A quote from a case or the MPEP can provide compelling arguments in some cases. However, it is important to remember that because the MPEP is designed for examiners not patent prosecutors, the support you can derive from this source may be limited in scope and is often inefficient to locate. Colleagues with prior experience with your examiner or issue are an excellent resource and can often provide additional guidance. Finally, tools like Arguminer can help you conduct pin-pointed research to identify which arguments have worked or failed in the past.
Variance in Examiner Behavior
This last point is critical. Examiner variance accounts for much of the outcome in a case. For example, in U.S. Application Serial No. 15/108,712, “Methods, Apparatus, Systems and Mechanisms for Secure Attribute Based Friend Find and Proximity Discovery’” an examiner issued a “mental steps” rejection under §101. In response, the applicant argued:
There is a fundamental difference between the types of claims that the courts have deemed to be ineligible under this exception and the present claims. Specifically, in the cases discussed in MPEP 2106.04(a)(2), subsection Ill.B, the allegedly inventive steps or elements of the claims (i.e., what the claims were directed to) were mental steps that could be performed in the human mind…. However, unlike the cases discussed in MPEP 2106.04(a)(2), … the steps in the pending claims that cannot be performed in the human mind are not ancillary steps to the invention to which the claims are directed. Rather, they are the crux of the invention.
In U.S. Application Serial No.15/610,596, “Method for Predicting Business Income from User Transaction Data,” a different examiner issued the same rejection and the applicant responded with:
… the claims recite operations that are advantageously performed by components of a communication network (a processor [e.g., of a server] deployed in the communication network) and cannot be performed as mental steps in a human’s mind. Moreover, the claims include significant features that go well beyond simply “using an index to search for and retrieve data” and “collecting information, analyzing it, and displaying certain results of the collection and analysis” within a particular technological environment, and therefore do not seek to tie up a judicial exception.
These responses are very similar in both quality and substance. But the first argument succeeded and the second failed. By doing a bit of research into an examiner’s history with a particular issue, you can hit the right points in your argument to persuade an examiner to allow your case.
Successful Patent Prosecution is Not a Gamble
For clients, it can sometimes seem as if their success rate with patent applications is dictated by chance. Although many aspects of prosecution cannot be controlled, with proper preparation and execution, patent prosecution can be guided in the direction of your desired outcome. By reading the office action carefully, and planning your response before you begin writing, and researching what has worked in the past using tools like Arguminer from IP Toolworks, you can give your clients the best possible chances at success.
Here is how you can use Arguminer to draw inspiration for the case at hand: