Why Patent Drawings Still Matter
Rummaging through the millions of issued U.S. patents, it doesn’t take very long to find something that resonates: Edison’s earliest light bulb designs; the Slinky® toy; NASA’s Mercury space capsule; designs for early iPod® and iPhone® devices; even the first patent, for methods of making potash, signed by George Washington. America’s patent literature is rightly regarded as a part of our scientific and technological heritage, but patents have made an equally important, and almost entirely unheralded, contribution to American arts – a rich, artistic body of patent drawings with its own unique visual language.
Since the beginning of the U.S. patent system, the laws and rules have required drawings in the vast majority of cases. These drawings have always been subject to strict rules, as the government pushed patent applicants to create clear, reproducible technical drawings that could be reduced, enlarged, and copied without losing clarity or detail. Traditionally executed on Bristol board with india ink, some classic patent drawings were true masterpieces of illustration, and have reached iconic status. For those patent applicants who made errors or sought to cut corners, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) employed a corps of official draftspeople whose sharp eyes checked every drawing against the USPTO’s standards.
The laws and rules are still on the books, and patent drawings are still submitted, as required, in the vast majority of patent cases, but today, things have changed – and not for the better. The USPTO let go of its corps of draftspeople and now entrusts patent examiners (who, on the whole, are not trained in illustration) with drawing review. As a practical matter, standards have relaxed, and now, any drawing that can be physically reproduced will likely be accepted – even halftoned, laser-printed color drawings that will not reproduce well.
If the USPTO will accept almost anything, why should patent applicants still care about patent drawings? Why bother submitting good, professionally prepared drawings?
Ultimately, a good patent application tells a story, describing an invention and its benefits in a favorable light and bringing to the fore its most important features. However, patents are different from any other type of descriptive document, and general technical drawings, 3D CAD renderings, or photographs created for other purposes may not show the most important features with sufficient clarity. Non-patent drawings may also show details – like dimensions, proportions, or radii – that could be detrimental to the patent by limiting its scope.
The available views of an invention may also not be sufficient to tell the story of an invention completely or well. For example, a patent applicant may be tempted to submit two perspective (i.e., 3D or isometric) views of an invention in a patent application when what’s really needed is one perspective view and a cross-sectional view taken from that perspective. A well-trained illustrator with a good imagination can work with patent applicants and their attorneys or agents to decide exactly what needs to be shown and to show only that, which makes the resulting drawings both clear and economical. By focusing only on what’s needed, a good illustrator allows patent applicants to avoid submitting lots of redundant views that contribute little to the explanation of the invention but take time and money for someone to prepare and could potentially increase the total cost of the patent application.
A good illustration can also use techniques to convey more than just how parts are structured. Take, for example, FIG. 15 of U.S. Patent 7,465,168.
The invention is a fetal simulator used to train doctors to deal with birthing complications. The simulator has realistic shoulder blades and a movable head and neck. By using combinations of solid and dotted lines, the illustrator (Bluebot Studios of York, PA) managed to convey both the structure of the simulator and the full range of motion of which it is capable without sacrificing clarity.
Patent applicants should also consider that the cost of preparing good drawings in the first place is probably less than the cost of trying to fix things after the fact. Once a patent application is filed, the law and rules prevent a patent applicant from introducing any “new matter” that was not present in the application at the time of filing. This severely limits the changes that can be made to a drawing, because the accompanying text, the specification, may not describe every feature that should be present in a drawing with absolute clarity. Even when a drawing can be fixed or improved after the filing of an application, doing so often requires time, extensive paperwork, and extreme vigilance in the preparation of the corrected drawing – all of which equates to additional expense.
For all that, the real value of patent drawings probably comes long after a patent is issued. If patent rights do need to be enforced, the patent is likely to be read and interpreted by a judge, and perhaps even by a jury. Judges and juries may not have particular expertise in science or engineering, and thus, may not be able to easily interpret the text of the application. Like most of us, their first impulse may be to look at the drawings – and good drawings that explain things clearly may be key to winning.
In other words, the USPTO may have relaxed its standards, but a patent applicant who fails to secure good, professional patent drawings does so at his or her peril.