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Help us LEAP forward with PTAB assistance for practitioners and inventors

Blog by Kathi Vidal, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the USPTO

LEAP-eligible practitioners speak with PTAB judges (in person and on screen) about logistics for oral hearings, during a LEAP to Chambers event at a PTAB hearing room in Alexandria, Virginia

Since the moment I was sworn in as Director of this great agency two years ago, I have been guided by the conviction that we must open the doors of opportunity in the innovation community to everyone, not just a select few. Only when every inventor and entrepreneur has an equal chance to bring their new ideas and products to the global marketplace, on a level playing field, does our nation truly thrive.

There are many things we have done at the USPTO to push those doors of opportunity wide open, but I want to highlight a few in particular that I need your help in sharing with others. Collectively, they make access to the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) easier and more transparent than ever, for both legal practitioners and the inventors they represent.

First, we are eager to engage with the public on our proposed rule to amend the criteria individuals must meet to practice before the PTAB. This rule will expand opportunities for more individuals to participate in our innovation ecosystem, while not compromising our goal of issuing and maintaining robust and reliable intellectual property rights. We encourage stakeholders to submit comments by May 21.

The next two programs are part of our continuing efforts, through the Legal Experience and Advancement Program (LEAP), to empower the next generation of advocates and prepare them for meaningful, impactful work early in their careers.

“LEAP to Chambers” brings eligible practitioners to a USPTO hearing facility, where a PTAB judge will give them a behind-the-scenes tour. They will get a feel for the hearing room by standing behind the podium and testing out their openings. They will learn how to display evidence at a hearing, and they may sit at the bench and view the hearing room and evidence from the judges’ vantage point. A remote judge also will join the tour to provide tips on how to most effectively argue before a hybrid panel of in-person and remote judges.

After the tour, judges spend time with practitioners highlighting effective advocacy techniques and answering questions. These conversations are a safe space for practitioners outside the context of a real argument or ongoing proceeding to seek clarification on PTAB procedures.

In “LEAP to Law Schools,” judges visit law schools and offer an overview of PTAB proceedings, including demonstration of a mock argument. By exposing law school students to PTAB so early in their legal careers, the USPTO encourages greater and more inclusive participation by law students in the intellectual property field and better equips them to practice before the USPTO.

Law students speak with PTAB judges in small groups during a LEAP to Law School event at Texas A&M Law School in Fort Worth, Texas, in October 2023.

In addition to these two new programs, PTAB continues to offer LEAP-eligible practitioners the opportunity to present mock oral arguments and practice their advocacy skills before a panel of judges and receive individualized feedback.

Since LEAP launched more than three years ago, over 350 eligible practitioners and 135 law firms have participated. But we are still just getting started, and we need your help. Whether you are in-house or work for a large law firm, or anything in between, please share these free training opportunities widely within your professional networks, and encourage the next generation of practitioners to take full advantage of them.

We also recently launched a new PTAB Moot Court Competition for law students to develop and practice the written and oral advocacy skills needed for America Invents Act (AIA) proceedings. This free, fully virtual program is open to teams of students who will be enrolled in law school full-time or part-time during the 2024-2025 academic year. Students will get to work closely with an Administrative Patent Judge (APJ) coach, receive practical tips and experience on how to best present a case before the PTAB, and participate in live oral arguments before a panel of APJs. We encourage law school faculty members or administrators to visit the program webpage for more information and submit an interest form by March 31.

Another opportunity we need your help in promoting is the PTAB Pro Bono Program , which serves under-resourced inventors seeking to appeal a patentability rejection by an examiner. We launched the program in 2022 in collaboration with the PTAB Bar Association, and since then, a number of licensed patent attorneys, registered to practice before the USPTO, have offered their free services to represent independent inventors, inventor groups, and inventor-owned small businesses in ex parte appeals. Where we need your help most is in promoting the program more widely within the inventor community.

To be eligible for PTAB pro bono assistance, an individual inventor must:

Reside in the United States;

Have a total household income of less than 400% of the federal poverty guidelines; 

Successfully complete a training course consisting of two videos, one on how PTAB Pro Bono operates and how to apply for assistance, and the other on the ex parte appeal process;

Apply to the program within one month from the date of an office action in which the claims have been twice or finally rejected; and

Not be under an obligation to assign (sell or give ownership of) the application or resulting patent to a third party. 

Inventors who are part of an inventor group of up to four known inventors must meet the qualifications listed above. Inventor-owned small businesses are eligible if they are 100% inventor-owned and if each inventor-owner meets the qualifications listed above. If the business was operating in the calendar year prior to the application for pro bono assistance, it must have had a total gross income of less than $150,000, and the business must expect/project a total gross income of less than $150,000 in the calendar year when the application for pro bono assistance is filed.

Please visit the LEAP and PTAB Pro Bono pages of the USPTO website for more information, share them with others, and feel free to contact me at Director@uspto.gov if you can’t find your answers there. I look forward to discussing these programs and more at the PTAB Bar Association Annual Conference on March 7.

Together, we can make a difference for the next generation of patent practitioners, the inventors they represent, and our nation’s future!