Patent agents are not stifling Canadian inventors

We are indebted to Robert Barrigar for permitting us to post this article that was published in the Globe and Mail on March 8, 2017.  Mr. Barrigar is past-president of the Intellectual Property Institute of Canada (IPIC) and was registered as a Canadian and U.S. patent agent and served four years on the Patent Agents Examining Board.

Innovation is a hot topic these days, but often not fully understood. The role of patent agents is one of the most misunderstood subtopics, and a recent argument in these pages (of the Globe and Mail) that patent agents are impeding innovation in Canada only served to cloud the waters. While the author recommended government action to redefine the regulation of Canadian patent agents, he failed to recognize that the Intellectual Property Institute of Canada (IPIC) had previously, on its own initiative, recommended such to the federal government. Canadian patent agents obtain protection for the inventions of Canadian clients; they do not present obstacles, except charging for their services.

It is important to understand the difficulties faced by Canadian innovators. Our market is small compared to that of the United States. For this reason, it is often more difficult for a Canadian innovator to receive financing for obtaining and exploiting a patent than is the case in the United States. Canadian innovators typically prefer to obtain U.S. patents as a first priority, and Canadian patents, at best, a second priority. Accordingly, a Canadian patent agent has to understand the requirements of U.S. patent law and practice, as a Canadian agent will often be charged by a Canadian client with writing and prosecuting a U.S. patent application. The principal challenges to Canadian innovators – financing, marketing, competition – do not involve Canadian patent agents.

A typical Canadian patent agent has a university degree in science or engineering, and an aptitude for effective communication about technical matters relating to clients’ inventions. Historically, the Canadian patent profession has been governed primarily by the Patent Act and Patent Rules, and secondarily by IPIC. At the present time, this set of relationships is under review both by IPIC and the federal government.

The patent profession is sufficiently small that no specific patent-agent-oriented university accreditation is available for individuals who plan to become professional patent agents – they must rely upon their work experience to qualify for writing the patent agents examinations, which they must pass in order to become registered. They need not have been apprenticed to a registered patent agent, but having had such as a mentor and tutor is clearly advantageous.

The members of the Examining Board who set and mark the examinations that must be passed for registration as a Canadian patent agent are appointed by the Commissioner of Patents. The chairperson of the Board and at least three other members must be professional employees of the Patent Office.

When I served on the Examining Board, the pass rate was appreciably below 50 per cent, partly due to the writing of the examinations by lawyers of limited experience; inadequate technical analysis; lack of familiarity with applicable statutory and case law and regulations; and inadequacy of written expression. It is clearly not in the public interest to accept as members of the patent profession those who cannot pass the patent agents examinations. Canada does not need consultants who fail to comprehend the complexities of patent practice nor those who draft inadequate documents. Perhaps the most underrated desirable qualification for a patent agent is adequacy of expression. Unfortunately, not even a PhD nor a law degree guarantees that this quality is among those obtained through an individual’s education. This reflects a deficiency in Canadian education at lower levels.

It is important to note that inventors may represent themselves before the Patent Office; they do not need to retain a patent agent. But they would be well advised to do so, as serious and sometimes irreversible errors can easily be made by untutored inventors. Chances are that any consultant who attempts to draft a patent application without having been registered as a patent agent will be at risk of drafting a legally invalid or economically useless or inferior document. And any such consultant who attempts to respond to a Patent Office Examiner’s objection will face the same set of problems.

It is important to note that patent agents are not, per se, advocates for clients’ inventions. Clients may wish to obtain and enforce their own patents, but they may wish to invalidate others’ patents or obtain opinions so that they do not infringe such. Subject to avoidance of conflicts of interest, patent agents must be prepared to assist clients to obtain any of these objectives.