Determining who can lay claim to an invention under patent law can be difficult. In the U.S., the key factor is contribution to the conception of an invention.

“Reduction to practice is typically irrelevant for purposes of determining inventorship,” says John M. Ling, a partner with Fay Sharpe LLP. “Rather it is conception that is the threshold criterion for determining inventorship.”

Smart Business spoke with Ling about inventorship and idea conception.

How is conception defined and determined?

Simply, it is who had the idea. When one or more parties were tasked with solving a problem, and they arrive at the solution to the problem, then the invention is born.

A person who contributed to the conception is an inventor whereas a person who did not is not. Merely being in the room when the idea is born is not enough.

There is also an oath and declaration that is signed when the patent application is filed. The patent office will presume that anyone whose signature is on that document is an inventor.

It’s a good strategy to memorialize conception. If a couple of engineers in the R&D department conceive of an invention at a meeting, it’s a good idea to get them to draft a paragraph or two describing the invention in broad strokes, sign and date it, and have a department manager sign and date the document as a witness.

What has to be done to prove creative contribution?

It seems counterintuitive that conception could be a joint endeavor. But the doctrine of joint inventorship permits multiple parties to claim inventorship on a patent application, so long as they contributed to the conception of the claimed invention.

Inventor A bounces an idea off inventor B, who has an idea to help improve the first idea. If that’s what ends up being claimed in the patent application, they are co-inventors.

The claims are a series of short paragraphs at the end of the application that describes succinctly and specifically what the inventor believes he has created. For example, there might be 20 claims in a patent application, and if inventor A conceived and contributed to claims one through 19 and inventor B only contributed to claim 20, inventor B is still a co-inventor.

It should be noted that if claim 20 is deleted or otherwise amended to remove the subject matter that inventor B contributed, then inventor B should be removed as an inventor. Conversely, if someone should have been named as an inventor but was not, that person should be added. If the correct inventors are not listed on a granted patent once it has been issued by the patent office, a door is opened for third parties to attack the validity of the patent. But as long as that error occurred without deceptive intent, the patent holder has a right and opportunity to correct the inventorship listed on the patent.

What steps should an inventor take before collaborating with another party?

In cases where an inventor has conceived an invention but wants to collaborate with a second party, such as an engineering firm to help reduce it to practice, it is recommended that the inventor work with patent counsel to file a provisional patent application for the invention before any collaboration takes place. That provisional application can be seen as a placeholder. It gives you a filing date for your invention, and then you have 12 months to file a non-provisional conversion application.

If collaboration alters the invention slightly, and as a result the collaborator wants to be listed as an inventor, the inventor has the provisional application to fall back on. It provides a measure of protection for them. That approach will mitigate inventorship ambiguity down the road and help determine the fruit of the collaborative efforts, as opposed to the original inventor’s contribution.

Also, as a result of the recently passed America Invents Act, the U.S. will become a ‘first inventor to file’ country on March 16, 2013, meaning that the first inventor to file a patent application for a given invention is entitled to the patent once it issues. Presently, an inventor filing in the U.S. has a one-year grace period from an earliest date of disclosure of the invention to file an application therefor. Unlike other first to file countries, that grace period will be retained when the U.S. becomes a first inventor to file country on March 16, 2013, in order to protect inventors from having their own inventions used against them as prior art. However, filing provisional applications (or even a full non-provisional application) early and often remains the best strategy for obtaining an early filing date and protecting your invention.

What are shop rights?

Shop rights are an implied license that permits an employer to use but not sell a patented invention of an employee when the invention was made within the scope of that person’s employment but with the financing and/or resources of the employer.

We recommend employers have their employees sign an employment contract that includes an assignment clause whereby the employee is required to assign to the employer his or her interest in the invention produced as a result of the employee’s employment.

That means if an employee is hired to improve fuel efficiency and he files for a patent on improving fuel efficiency, the assignment clause ensures that the patent rights belong to the employer. However, if the employee files a patent application for a spoon handle with a unique bend in it, that is likely not within the scope of his employment.

Absent such a contract and the assignment of the invention to the employer, the courts will typically analyze the circumstances of how the invention was made to determine whether the employer has a right to use the invention, and they will look at whether the invention falls into the scope of the employee’s employment, and whether the employer provided funding, tools, or resources, without which the inventor would have been unlikely to make the invention.

In those cases, the employer may have shop rights, despite the lack of contractual obligation on the part of the inventor to assign the rights to the employer, but it should be noted that those rights are generally nontransferrable. The shop just gets to use the invention — it can’t sell or license it or obtain any of the other good features that come with patent protection.

John M. Ling is a partner with Fay Sharpe LLP. Reach him at (216) 363-9000 or jling@faysharpe.com.

Published in Cleveland