How can I Learn About Patent Law?

C. Mitchell

There are many ways to learn about the body of law that protects patents and patentable material. Patents are rights created by national law that give inventors and creators limited exclusivity to use their inventions and to market the creative processes that gave rise to their inventions. The first place to look for information about patent law is the law itself: locating the relevant patent statutes can give you a first-hand sense of what the patent law says. Interpreting the patent law is harder, and typically involves either in-depth case studies, independent research, or conversations with knowledgeable patent attorneys.

Reading the patent statutes is one approach to learning patent law.
Reading the patent statutes is one approach to learning patent law.

Patent law is well regarded as one of the more complex bodies of law, even though the reigning statutes are more or less straightforward. Typically involving complex fact scenarios and heavily scientific data sets, patents often defy confinement. Much of the practice of patent law is concerned with applications: how the law is or should be applied to a given situation, what the prior history says, and whether exceptions should be granted in situations that could not have anticipated at the time the laws were drafted, among other things. To learn about patent law’s applications, one must generally do a bit of research.

If you are hoping to become a patent attorney, pursuing a law degree could be a good idea.
If you are hoping to become a patent attorney, pursuing a law degree could be a good idea.

Most countries issue patents through a centralized patent office. The office is usually a good resource for starting to understand the laws surrounding patent issuance, practice, and prosecution. It often has libraries and archives that are open to the public and employ staffers who can answer basic patent-related questions.

Patent attorneys can also be an invaluable resource, depending on what kind of information you are after. A patent attorney is an intellectual property lawyer who has devoted a significant portion of practice time to the study of patent law and its applications. Some patent lawyers work with inventors to apply for patent protection, while others spend the majority of their time opposing patents that may interfere with preexisting rights. It is lawyers who represent patent owners and would-be owners in trials and hearings before the national patent-granting agency, and it is typically lawyers who are employed by that agency to review patent applications in the first place. You are bound to get a lot of information from whomever you ask, although the perspectives of each practitioner are bound to be different.

One of the only places that patent law is formally taught is in law school. Patents are a facet of intellectual property law, and patents are typically introduced to students in an basic intellectual property course. Sometimes students will have the opportunity to take patent-specific electives in later semesters, but this largely depends on the school.

If you are hoping to become a patent attorney or if you want to turn your knowledge of patent law into a substantive career, pursuing a law degree could be a good idea. Law school is a major undertaking, and the vast majority of required courses have nothing to do with patents, however. Unless a legal career is something you really want, there are less onerous — and less expensive — ways of learning.

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