I asked Ron Slusky to share some insight from his new book on patent prosecution and claim drafting. The book is titled Invention Analysis and Claiming: A Patent Lawyer’s Guide (American Bar Association 2007). [Currently $51 on Amazon] Information about the book, including extensive excerpts, can be found at www.claim-drafting.com.
The following are Slusky’s “five prescriptions for effectively analyzing an invention and then claiming it.”
1. Identify the inventive concept by beginning from the problem that the inventor set out to solve and then asking how, broadly and functionally, the inventor solved that problem
The popular alternative approach of drafting a claim of some indeterminate breadth directed to the embodiment(s) and then whittling that claim down will surely result in a broader claim to the embodiment(s) than what one started with. But that approach may still miss the broad invention because if words defining the inventive concept are not present in the original claim—e.g., a new and non-obvious functional interrelationship—such words are unlikely to somehow magically appear during the broadening process.
2. Begin by drafting a problem-solution statement rather than a claim
As just noted, drafting claims should not be the primary vehicle for discovering the invention. The structural formalisms of claim drafting, while perhaps familiar and facilitating, can all too easily mislead us into thinking we have discovered the inventive forest when we have actually only identified some of its trees.
Begin, instead, by drafting a problem-solution statement and use that as the basis for drafting the patent application’s broadest claims A problem-solution statement is a single sentence stating as broadly as possible, but without reading on the prior art, a) the problem the invention solves, and b) the inventor’s solution to that problem. Here, for example, is a problem-solution statement for a seminal invention of rocket pioneer Robert Goddard:
The problem of enabling a rocket to carry a large amount of combustible material while keeping the weight of the rocket as low as possible is solved by successively feeding portions of the material to the combustion chamber from a separate casing containing the supply of combustible material.
This leads directly to the following claim appearing in Goddard’s U.S. patent 1,103,503 issued July 14, 1914:
A rocket apparatus having, in combination, a combustion chamber, a casing containing a supply of combustible material, and means for successively feeding portions of said material to said combustion chamber.
3. Dream Up Alternatives, Including Some Farfetched Ones
A powerful tool for analyzing an inventor’s embodiment to extract the inventive essence is to dream up some alternatives to the inventor’s embodiment(s), including some alternatives that are farfetched. These are embodiments that, while outlandish or “wacky,” would nonetheless solve the problem to at least some extent. The more farfetched the better. The point is not to claim, or even to disclose, these embodiments in the patent application. The point is that even a farfetched embodiment can solve the problem without involving some of the implementational details required by practical embodiments. Thus dreaming up farfetched embodiments is a way of isolating the essence of the invention from its illustrative implementational details. Thus, for example, envisioning that a touch-tone telephone might have miniature trained parrots to whistle the various tones might be the key to realizing that the idea of using tones to signal from a caller’s premises to the telephone network was not limited to the use of oscillators and physical push buttons, neither of which are used in, for example, web-based telephony systems like SkypeTM.
4. Endeavor to discover “What’s Really Going On”
One way of gaining insight into the breadth of an invention is to ask oneself What’s Really Going On? or—more completely—What’s Really Going On to Solve the Problem? The word "really" in this question emphasizes a search for the fundamental problem and the fundamental solution. What is going on really? The exhortation to discover What’s Really Going On? invites us to exercise our technological curiosity; to dig down and discover what the invention is accomplishing at its essence; to understand what is going on at the 50,000-foot level; to see the invention in terms of fundamental causes and ultimate effects, without all the stuff in between. Thus answering What’s Really Going On? means figuring out—and ultimately claiming—what it is that solves the problem in at least a rudimentary way—not what solves the problem in the most elegant, efficient or commercially attractive way. Indeed, competitors may sacrifice a measure of elegance, efficiency or even commercial attractiveness in their products if it means being able to get into the market or avoid paying a patent royalty. Or they may devise their own elegant, efficient or commercially attractive implementations. Try to identify what is common among all of the embodiments, including some “farfetched” embodiments that the inventor and attorney may be able to collaboratively dream up, as described above. Identifying that which is common to all of those embodiments provides a good start to answering the question “What’s Really Going On?”
5. Envision the “Opposing Team”—the potential infringer and his patent attorney
When analyzing an invention and drafting claims based on the analysis, do not focus solely on what the inventor has done. Focus, rather, on what some competitor may do that takes advantage of what the inventor has done while avoiding the claims. The Opposing Team will be poring over the claims after the patent issues, looking for limitations that their product does not meet, or for some way to redesign the product to that end. Thus as each word, phrase and structural element appears on the computer screen, the claim drafter should imagine himself to be the Opposing Team and try to think of a way around that limitation, just like the real-life Opposing Team will do. In short, the patent attorney endeavoring to further his client’s interests is aided in that task by taking on the mindset of a competitor’s attorney endeavoring to further his client’s interests.