By Dennis Crouch
Interview summaries. In a recent post, Professor Chao discussed the common practice of examiner interviews where the patent attorney discusses outstanding issues with the patent examiner. No transcript or recording of the discussion is kept, although there is a requirement that a summary of the interview and its results be written and placed within the file history. Professor Chao argues that the summaries are insufficient because all-too-often, a seemingly valid rejection simply vanishes following an examiner interview. For evidence, Chao also cites discussions at a recent Stanford Law School conference “where two prominent professors separately complained about how opaque the interview process was.”
Although Chao’s proposal has significant practicality problems, I also had the same sense of the problem — that the interview summaries create opacity in a process where transparency should rule. However, since Chao’s essay was posted, I have followed up with two “reality checks” that have raised my optimism on interviews.
First the rule — MPEP §713.04 walks through a number of elements that are required as part of an interview summary. These requirements include a fairly detailed list:
The complete and proper recordation of the substance of any interview should include at least the following applicable items:
(A) a brief description of the nature of any exhibit shown or any demonstration conducted;
(B) identification of the claims discussed;
(C) identification of specific prior art discussed;
(D) identification of the principal proposed amendments of a substantive nature discussed, unless these are already described on the Interview Summary form completed by the examiner;
(E) the general thrust of the principal arguments of the applicant and the examiner should also be identified, even where the interview is initiated by the examiner. The identification of arguments need not be lengthy or elaborate. A verbatim or highly detailed description of the arguments is not required. The identification of the arguments is sufficient if the general nature or thrust of the principal arguments can be understood in the context of the application file. Of course, the applicant may desire to emphasize and fully describe those arguments which he or she feels were or might be persuasive to the examiner;
(F) a general indication of any other pertinent matters discussed;
(G) if appropriate, the general results or outcome of the interview; and
(H) in the case of an interview via electronic mail a paper copy of the contents exchanged over the internet MUST be made and placed in the patent application file as required by the Federal Records Act in the same manner as an Examiner Interview Summary Form, PTOL-413, is entered.
The requirement is detailed, and the point is that interviews are not “off the record” even if not audio-recorded or transcribed. One problem with these requirements is that they lack an enforcement mechanism other than the examiner’s “careful review.” There is no direct way to challenge a patent issued because of an inadequate interview summary other than inequitable conduct — a defense that requires substantial proof of intent to commit fraud. Still, patent attorneys are bound by the ethics requirements to comply with the law in good faith and act with candor in all dealings with the USPTO — the result is that we should largely expect compliance with the required standards. Helping this along, the interview summary form now particularly asks applicants to describe the issues discussed, claims discussed, prior art discussed, and the interview substance.
Looking at the Interview Summaries: After reading through the rule, I then thumbed through a handful of interview summaries and have been happy to see that, in fact, the invention summaries are generally detailed pointing to the particular issues discussed and the resolution of those discussions. Now, the summaries are not as detailed as you might see in an office action rejection or subsequent response, but they do provide substantial context, meaning, and understanding.
To find these, I first downloaded the PAIR files for a random set of recently issued patents and then sorted them to find file histories where issuance/notice of allowance occurred fairly quickly following the interview since that represents the complained-of situation. The four below are simply the first for interview summaries that I looked-at:
Application No. 13/308105:
Attorney had proposed more restrictive claim language in accord with examiner’s determination of un-obvious claims over the prior art and also proposed withdrawn subject matter directed to encapsulated forms. Examiner to enter the amendment over currently pending claims with consideration to be given to a divisional for the encapsulated invention when presented. See examiner’s amendment for allowed claims of current case.
Application No. 12/875,772:
The examiner indicated amending the claims to more clearly identify “the first processor,” “the second processor”, and the “processing components” as depicted in figure 2 would overcome the prior art rejection in Key in view of Fukushima.
Application No. 13/117,944:
Prior art discussed: Bednar
Applicant called to discuss the invention and potential differences between the prior art and the disclosed invention. Applicant discussed a couple of amendments to the independent claim to attempt to overcome the current prior art. It was suggested to the Applicant to add a limitation to further define the spacer to be vibration dampening or made of a vibration dampening material in addition to the spacer extending past or beyond the cable slot toward the riser so that it is not only present in the cable slot and so it may support also add support the barrel. These limitations appear to be fully supported by the figures and do not appear to be present in the prior art reference as Bednar only shows the spacer/dampeners to be present in the cable slot portion of the barrel. These limitations will also require an updated search and therefore no determination of patentability has been made. When these amendments are filed the examiner will update the prior art search and reconsider the currently applied rejection.
Application No. 13/685,368
The examiner and applicant’s representative discussed a set of proposed Examiner’s amendments to place the application in condition for allowance. The amendments set forth clarity, proper antecedent basis, and suitable claim structure to overcome any issues with respect to 35 U.S.C. 101 and 112. The specifics of agreements reached are incorporated in the replacement listing of the allowed claims as set forth in the examiner’s amendment section of the attached notice of allowability. Consequently, the discussion and agreements reached resulted in the allowance of the instant application.
To my eyes, these interview summaries do a very good job of providing information to the world regarding the issued discussed, the conclusion drawn, and the reasoning for those conclusions. Of course, more detail is possible and may be preferable, but this small sample has gone a significant way toward changing my view of the off-the-record nature of examiner interviews.