Claiming Priority to Provisional Applications

By Dennis Crouch

An ever increasing proportion of US-based patent applicants rely upon provisional patent applications. For many, a provisional application is seen as a low-cost mechanism for claiming a priority date and for delaying the eventual higher cost of drafting and filing a non-provisional application. More sophisticated parties also use a provisional application as a way to shift the patent term back by one year. One problem with the cost-savings approach is that provisional applications only serve their purpose if they include a sufficient disclosure to protect the eventual claims.

One question that I’ve had for a while is whether patentees ordinarily add new matter when filing a non-provisional application that follows a provisional priority document. New matter might be needed because the original provisional application was filed hastily without sufficient time to marshal and understand the important facts. Similarly, new matter might also be wanted if additional technological progress occurred during the interim. The question has been difficult to ascertain because the USPTO does not make its database of about 2,000,000 provisional applications publicly available other than the individual files in PAIR. This, despite the law that provisional applications count as prior art in many situations. Additionally, the USPTO does not ordinarily ask the applicant to identify whether any new matter (additional disclosure) has been added to the formalized non-provisional or, if so, what that new matter might be. Rather, applicants merely “claim priority” to the provisional without saying more. The AIA first-to-file transition offers an opportunity to shed some light on industry practice in this area.

As part of a project on the impact of the America Invents Act, I looked up a set of about 2,000 recently published patent applications that were each filed on or after the March 16, 2013 but that claim direct priority to a provisional patent application filed before that date. This cohort is interesting because the applications span the transition from the pre-AIA invention-date focus to the post-AIA filing-date focus. The cohort is particularly interesting for the provisional-priority question because applicants must declare whether the claims in the newly filed application are fully supported by the provisional.

Some Background: Under the new law, the filing-date focused (first-to-file) patent regime applies to patent applications filed on or after March 16, 2013 – with the caveat that these post-AIA application filings will be examined under the pre-AIA regime if each claim (ever) in the application has an “effective filing date” that is pre-AIA. In other words, a later-filed application will be judged under the first-to-invent rules if it properly claims priority to a pre-AIA application that sufficiently discloses the claimed invention. See AIA, Section 3(n). Under the plain language of the law, the regime used is done on a patent-by-patent basis rather than claim-by-claim or family-by-family.

Ask the Patentee Whether AIA Applies: Now, you might expect that the USPTO would be charged with examining the priority documents to ensure that the newly filed applications properly claim priority. That is not really done on a systematic basis. Rather, the Patent Office simply asks the applicant whether the new claims are fully supported by the priority document. For several reasons, I believe that the vast majority of applicants will be truthful in their response. People do lie, but attorneys strongly shy away from on-the-record lies that – if discovered – would lead to potential charges of inequitable conduct, violation of the rules of professional ethics, and malpractice. While attorney bars severely frown upon attorney dishonesty, patent prosecutors are held to an even higher standard that requires both “candor” and “good faith.”

Findings: Looking at post-AIA non-provisional applications that each claim priority to a pre-AIA provisional application: I find that the files of more than 80% of those applications assert that all claims in the non-provisional are fully supported by priority provisional application.

More on Methodology: For the study, I randomly selected a cohort of about 2000 recently published patent applications that were each filed on or after March 16, 2013 but that claim priority to a provisional application filed within 12-months before that changeover date. For each of those applications, I then used PAIR to determine whether the patent applicant indicated that all of the claims in the non-provisional application were effectively disclosed by the provisional filing. The result was that 1,743 out of 2,097 (83%) assert full disclosure by the provisional whereas 354 (17%) assert that the claims were not fully disclosed by the pre-AIA priority documents. Of some interest, large entities were much more likely to claim full priority than are small or micro entities. I also found nuance within firms that had multiple applications in my sample – i.e., some firms claimed full priority for certain applications but not for others.

Caveats and Conclusions: There are a few potential conclusions to draw from this result. My best guess: These results suggest that provisional applications are ordinarily being drafted with care and purpose to ensure sufficient disclosure. At the same time, I suspect that attorneys are also purposefully limiting invention scope so that full priority can still be claimed. As suggested above, I my guess is that few if any attorneys are improperly claiming full priority. Although not sufficient to claim statistical significance, my perusal of a handful of applications support these conclusions in that applications that claimed full priority were extremely similar to the associated provisional while the new matter was fairly quickly identifiable for those applications who admitted to new matter.

There are two important caveats to using this study to reflect more fully on the practice of provisional patent applications. First, the AIA changeover has likely impacted applicant behavior – making them potentially more careful than they would be in the ordinary situation. In particular, in the AIA changeover situation, adding new matter to the non-provisional claims does more than simply shift the effective filing date. Rather, it also alters the rules applied when judging novelty and obviousness. As I wrote in a prior post, depending upon their situation some applicants may prefer the old rule while others prefer the new. See Dennis Crouch, Should you Transform Your Pre-AIA Application to an AIA Application? (November 2013).

In addition, we also have a general data problem in that a substantial number of provisional patent applications expire without ever being claimed as a priority document. In a prior post, I wrote that: “48% of provisional applications filed in FY2011 were abandoned without being relied upon as a priority document.” Crouch, Abandoning Provisional Applications (January 2013). The point here is that we have no information regarding whether these abandoned provisionals applications are substantially more sloppy and poorly drafted – I suspect that they are.

Provisional Patent Applications

The number of provisional patent application filings continue to rise.  Well over 100,000 provisional patent applications have been filed each of the past five years.

For many, provisional applications are seen as a low-cost mechanism for claiming a priority date and for delaying the eventual higher cost of drafting and filing a non-provisional application. (A Google search for “provisional patent” resulted in ads for “$99 provisional patent”, “$139 provisional patent”, etc.) Others (especially those in the pharmaceutical industry) use provisional applications as a way to claim an additional year of at the end of the patent term.

Many patent attorneys criticize the use of provisional applications as a low-cost pathway — arguing that approach leads to a false sense of security because the low-quality applications will be insufficient to satisfy the disclosure requirements for later priority claims.

I am working on a project that looks at how patent applicants are using provisional patent applications.  The heart of the project attempts to determine whether the provisional disclosure properly enables and describes the invention as eventually claimed. Those results are still pending. However, I thought I would present some preliminary information about the provisionals in our study.

Results: One of the low-cost benefits of provisional applications is that they have no formal requirements. Thus, a printed PowerPoint presentation, whitepaper, or circuit diagram could each serve as a provisional application.  Patent claims are not required. However, we’re finding that about 60-70% of provisional applications are filed with at least one claim.  About 50–60% really look like non-provisional patent applications.  Around 15% of the provisional applications are essentially a stack of presentation materials. Almost all of the provisional applications are computer generated (rather than handwritten).

 

 

Priority Claims in Issued Patents

Patent families continue to grow. With the increasing popularity provisional patent applications, most issued patents now claim priority to at least one prior patent filing. I created a database of all priority claims for non-reissue utility patents issued February 14, 2006 – February 17, 2009 (Pat. Nos. 7,000,000 – 7,493662). In fact, only 31% of the patents have no listed priority claims. For the graph below, I looked at the earliest listed priority date (one for each patent) and then categorized those according to the type of priority claim. 40% of the earliest claims were to foreign patent filings, and 18% claimed earliest priority to a provisional patent application. The remaining 11% earliest priorities reached back via US continuations, divisionals, and continuations-in-part (CIPs).

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Provisional Patent Applications: Waiting to File Non-Provisionals

For better or worse, provisional patent applications have always been used as a way to delay patent prosecution. The procedure has become popular as a relatively cheap and informal mechanism for preserving priority of invention without losing patent term. Although a provisional application sets a priority date, the application does not even reach the examination queue until the full utility patent application is filed. Thus, on average, each day of delay in filing the utility patent application pushes the issue date back one day as well. However, provisional applications also serve as a mechanism for extending the tail end of the patent term because the twenty-year patent term does not begin to run until filing of the utility patent.

Provisional applications have become quite popular. In FY2007, for instance, over 132,000 provisional applications were filed and about 30% of recent patents assigned to US companies reference a provisional filing. [Link]

To see how provisional filings are being used, I compiled a set of 65,000 patents that issued sometime between Jan 2007 and Feb 2009 (inclusive). All the patents in the group share the common property of claiming priority only to one or more provisional applications. I additionally excluded patents that made other priority claims such as continuations, divisionals, and continuations-in-part. Once I formed the set of patents, I then looked at the filing date of the provisional application compared with the filing of the utility application to how applicants are using the extra year of deferred examination. For patents claiming priority to multiple provisional applications, I used the date of the earliest filed provisional application.

The graph below shows the result. The vast majority of applicants wait until the year is almost up before taking action and filing the non-provisional application. About two-thirds of the non-provisional applications were filed with less than ten days remaining in the one-year provisional pendency. In over ten percent of the cases, applicants properly filed the non-provisional more than 365 days after the original provisional filing because of weekends, holidays, and/or leap year.

200902212058.jpg

Two weeks ago, I had a conversation with a patent litigator about the propensity of patent attorneys to barely meet deadlines. He was worried about the potential for malpractice claims against his firm. And, here, I found a surprising number of cases that appear to miss the deadline.

My lingering question for patent attorneys and applicants — why delay so long? Is it simply a matter of doing work according to deadline? Does it matter that delaying filing the application also delays the eventual issuance of the patent?

Provisional Patent Applications: Waiting to File Non-Provisionals

For better or worse, provisional patent applications have always been used as a way to delay patent prosecution. The procedure has become popular as a relatively cheap and informal mechanism for preserving priority of invention without losing patent term. Although a provisional application sets a priority date, the application does not even reach the examination queue until the full utility patent application is filed. Thus, on average, each day of delay in filing the utility patent application pushes the issue date back one day as well. However, provisional applications also serve as a mechanism for extending the tail end of the patent term because the twenty-year patent term does not begin to run until filing of the utility patent.

Provisional applications have become quite popular. In FY2007, for instance, over 132,000 provisional applications were filed and about 30% of recent patents assigned to US companies reference a provisional filing. [Link]

To see how provisional filings are being used, I compiled a set of 65,000 patents that issued sometime between Jan 2007 and Feb 2009 (inclusive). All the patents in the group share the common property of claiming priority only to one or more provisional applications. I additionally excluded patents that made other priority claims such as continuations, divisionals, and continuations-in-part. Once I formed the set of patents, I then looked at the filing date of the provisional application compared with the filing of the utility application to how applicants are using the extra year of deferred examination. For patents claiming priority to multiple provisional applications, I used the date of the earliest filed provisional application.

The graph below shows the result. The vast majority of applicants wait until the year is almost up before taking action and filing the non-provisional application. About two-thirds of the non-provisional applications were filed with less than ten days remaining in the one-year provisional pendency. In over ten percent of the cases, applicants properly filed the non-provisional more than 365 days after the original provisional filing because of weekends, holidays, and/or leap year.

200902212058.jpg

Two weeks ago, I had a conversation with a patent litigator about the propensity of patent attorneys to barely meet deadlines. He was worried about the potential for malpractice claims against his firm. And, here, I found a surprising number of cases that appear to miss the deadline.

My lingering question for patent attorneys and applicants — why delay so long? Is it simply a matter of doing work according to deadline? Does it matter that delaying filing the application also delays the eventual issuance of the patent?

Provisional Patent Applications: Waiting to File Non-Provisionals

For better or worse, provisional patent applications have always been used as a way to delay patent prosecution. The procedure has become popular as a relatively cheap and informal mechanism for preserving priority of invention without losing patent term. Although a provisional application sets a priority date, the application does not even reach the examination queue until the full utility patent application is filed. Thus, on average, each day of delay in filing the utility patent application pushes the issue date back one day as well. However, provisional applications also serve as a mechanism for extending the tail end of the patent term because the twenty-year patent term does not begin to run until filing of the utility patent.

Provisional applications have become quite popular. In FY2007, for instance, over 132,000 provisional applications were filed and about 30% of recent patents assigned to US companies reference a provisional filing. [Link]

To see how provisional filings are being used, I compiled a set of 65,000 patents that issued sometime between Jan 2007 and Feb 2009 (inclusive). All the patents in the group share the common property of claiming priority only to one or more provisional applications. I additionally excluded patents that made other priority claims such as continuations, divisionals, and continuations-in-part. Once I formed the set of patents, I then looked at the filing date of the provisional application compared with the filing of the utility application to how applicants are using the extra year of deferred examination. For patents claiming priority to multiple provisional applications, I used the date of the earliest filed provisional application.

The graph below shows the result. The vast majority of applicants wait until the year is almost up before taking action and filing the non-provisional application. About two-thirds of the non-provisional applications were filed with less than ten days remaining in the one-year provisional pendency. In over ten percent of the cases, applicants properly filed the non-provisional more than 365 days after the original provisional filing because of weekends, holidays, and/or leap year.

200902212058.jpg

Two weeks ago, I had a conversation with a patent litigator about the propensity of patent attorneys to barely meet deadlines. He was worried about the potential for malpractice claims against his firm. And, here, I found a surprising number of cases that appear to miss the deadline.

My lingering question for patent attorneys and applicants — why delay so long? Is it simply a matter of doing work according to deadline? Does it matter that delaying filing the application also delays the eventual issuance of the patent?

A First Look at Who Files Provisional Patent Applications

Patent.Law083As part of the 1995 patent law overhaul, the USPTO began allowing patent applicants to file provisional patent applications.  Over a decade later, these lower-cost provisional filings have taken hold.  According to PTO annual reports, over 132,000 provisional patent applications were filed in fiscal year 2007. In perspective, that number is over 30% of the number of the 439,000 non-provisional utility patents filed during the same period. This proportion has been slowly rising since 2002 when the provisional applications filing rate was about 27% of the non-provisional rate.[1] That year (2002), the PTO recorded just under 90,000 provisional applications and 332,000 non-provisional patent applications.

Interestingly, in my study of recently issued patents, only 21% reference a provisional application as a parent. (In the study, I look at approximately 15,000 utility patents issued in April and May 2008.) [2] 

Patent.Law085National Tool: Over half of the recently issued patents that listed an assignee indicated that the assignee was a foreign (non-U.S.) corporation or agency.[4]  Although foreign entities are not prohibited from filing provisional applications, the provisional tool was designed to benefit U.S. entities. Thus, it is not a surprise that only 5% of the patents assigned to international applicants were associated with a provisional application while 30% of the patents assigned to a U.S. applicant were associated with a provisional application.  Two countries – Israel and Canada – stood out as filing the highest proportion of provisional parent claims. Both of these countries are known for having patent attorneys with a high level of familiarity with U.S. laws.  Only 2% of the Japanese & Korean patents included provisional parent claims. [Updated June 03 with Corrected Figure]

The provisional application provides a potential extra year of patent eligibility at the end of the term.  Thus, it is also not surprising that new drug inventions – where a potential year at the end of the term is most valuable – have the highest rate of association with a provisional application.[5]  Likewise, patents on electrical and electronic applications had the lowest rate of provisional filing even after excluding the international applications.

The provisional filings appeared to have almost no impact on the pendency time of a patent application as measured by the number of days from filing the nonprovisional to issuance.  This makes sense as no examination takes place until the nonprovisional application is filed.

The following table also provides some interesting comparisons of patent strategy.[6]

Type of Technology

Number of Utility Patents in the Sample

Number of Patents Referencing Provisional Parent

Assignee

Mechanical

24

1

4%

Ford

25

13

52%

GM

Drugs & Medical

7

4

57%

Wyeth

8

7

88%

Genentech

11

1

9%

Boston Scientific Scimed

21

10

48%

Medtronic

Computers & Communications

15

12

80%

InterDigital

23

7

30%

Oracle

31

11

35%

QUALCOMM

44

25

57%

Broadcom

114

16

14%

Microsoft

Chemical

6

6

100%

Bristol-Myers Squibb

9

4

44%

Procter Gamble

10

3

30%

3M Innovative Properties

14

9

64%

EI du Pont de Nemours

17

0

0%

General Electric[7]

17

16

94%

Genentech

 


[1] This information comes from PTO annual reports for FY 2006 and 2007.

[2] These patents were downloaded on May 30. I excluded the few patents filed prior to the 1995 introduction of provisional patent applications.

[3] In a follow-on study, I will look at published patent applications claiming priority to provisional applications to get some sense of how often folks abandon provisional patent applications.

[4] 6823 were assigned to foreign entity while 6457 were assigned to a U.S. entity. Another 1922 had no listed assignee.

[5] My study included 677 patents having a primary U.S. Classification in a “drug” field and also assigned to a U.S. entity. Of those, 48% were associated with a provisional application.

[6] Note, my assignee ‘scrubber’ is not yet perfect. Thus, it is likely that some patents associated with listed assignees are not included in the table.

[7] Some companies, such as GE hold patents in several different categories – this table looks only at those patents in the particular identified category.