What is the difference between a Patent Attorney and a Patent Agent?

496707578_4e07b872d8_m This site uses the terms Patent Agent and Patent Attorney somewhat interchangeably.  However, there are differences between the two.

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) requires that all individuals prosecuting patent applications be registered with the Office. (Though there is an exception that allows an inventor to prosecute his own application.) The USPTO recognizes two types of registrations – Patent Attorney registration and Patent Agent registration.

Patent Agents hold an undergraduate degree in a technical field (usually), and have passed the Patent Bar Examination.

Patent Attorneys hold an undergraduate degree in a technical field (usually), have passed the Patent Bar Examination, hold a J.D. degree from a recognized law school, and are licensed to practice law in at least one U.S. state.

Both Patent Agents and Patent Attorneys may represent inventors before the USPTO. Both can draw up patent applications, and both can help shepherd an application though the application process.  This application process is called patent prosecution.

However, the similarities end there. Only Patent Attorneys may practice law. A Patent Attorney may represent clients before state and federal courts, draft legal documents such as assignments and contracts, initiate or defend a suit against allegations of infringement, and offer general legal advice.

Because of their higher qualifications, Patent Attorneys tend to charge more for their services than Patent Agents. This is not to say that all Patent Attorneys perform higher-quality work than Patent Agents. On the contrary, many Patent Agents, particularly those who’ve worked as a Patent Examiner at the USPTO, are just as if not more qualified in patent prosecution than many Patent Attorneys.  However, a Patent Attorney’s legal training may enable him to better understand the underlying legal issues of the prosecution process.

So which do you need to help you patent your invention, a Patent Attorney or a Patent Agent?  There is no easy answer to this question, as a lot of it depends on your particular situation. Is you invention simple or complex?  Are you entering a crowded field that makes litigation likely?  Do you need legal advice as well as prosecution services?  Are you planning to assign or license your invention to third party?

If you are unsure of whether you need an Agent or an Attorney, the best thing to do is meet with both a local attorney and a local agent to help make your decision.

*Image courtesy umjanedoan on flickr.

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