Careers in Science: Patent Law

Intellectual property rights in the United States have their origins in the Constitution, which provides Congress with the power “To promote Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Author and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Following the passage of the Patent Act of 1790, the first patent was granted to Samuel Hopkins for “an Improvement, not known or used before such Discovery, in the making of Pot ash and Pearl ash,” used in fertilizer and glass production. From then, patents have taken off with human ingenuity. In 2010 alone, the United States Patent and Trademark Office received 520,277 applications and granted 244,341 patents.

Chad D. Tillman is the Managing Partner at Tillman Wright, PLLC, which is an intellectual property and business law firm. Photo courtesy of Chad Tillman.

Today, patents guarantee innovators “the right to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling” their invention in the United States. According to Tillman Wright Patent Attorney Chad Tillman, patent law is “a system designed to protect a person’s creativity and ingenuity.” Tillman graduated from Yale College in 1991 with a degree in physics. He chose to major in physics because he enjoyed the challenge and rigor that came with a course of study in physics at Yale. However, with no interest in teaching or research, the two most common careers among physicists, Tillman decided to change paths. Upon graduation, he entered law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and soon discovered patent law, in which a science background is not only recommended but also required. After graduating with a J.D. in 1994, Tillman became a preparation and prosecution attorney. He now works on a daily basis with clients who have dreamed up “a better mousetrap” or other innovative solutions to life’s problems and considers himself to be an entrepreneur, supporting inventors and their startups.

Despite a substantial increase in patent lawyer salaries over the past 20 years, few science and engineering students attend law school, and patent law is not in high demand as a profession. In addition, this lack of overlap may be representative of a wider rift. Judges and juries who hear patent infringement cases seldom understand the science and inventors who file patent applications rarely understand the legalities. “My job is to bridge that gap,” Tillman explains. And whether or not you agree with the latest “patent laws” – Tillman is personally dismayed by the decisions of policymakers and claims not to know a single patent attorney who agrees with the recent changes made by the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, which switches the patent system from a “first to invent” to a “first to file” basis – those who work with patents are among a select number who cross one of the boundaries between science and society as a whole.

Patent law is a career track that is often overlooked by the most qualified candidates: students with science backgrounds who are interested in bringing cutting edge inventions to reality. Photo courtesy of the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Though most people, especially young people, do not hold patents, many could. In fact, the youngest person to hold a United States Patent, Sydney Dittman, was only four years old when she patented an “aid for grasping round knobs.” Tillman explains that “most people will have at least one good idea during their lives. Zuckerberg was not the first person to come up with something like Facebook. But if you don’t act on your ideas, you have given them up.”

Following that train of thought, Tillman suggested that the easiest way for creative Yale students to get involved is to file a patent application. Patent law is an open field that requires the relevant technical training, much like needing the appropriate physics background for mechanical devices and biochemistry for pharmaceuticals. “Seventy to eighty percent of what I do could be done without a law degree,” he says. Patent agents, who prosecute cases before the Patent and Trademark Office, are only required to pass the USPTO registration examination, which can be taken after earning an undergraduate degree. Only patent attorneys, however, can prosecute and litigate in cases of patent infringement. Both tracks are appropriate for students with science backgrounds who may not want to work in science, but who want to be on the cutting edge and to see how science fits into a broader context.

It is no secret that patents are now more important than ever in America. Just earlier this year, Google bought Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion, acquiring a portfolio of more than 17,000 patents in the transaction. A career in patent law is an opportunity that is too often overlooked by the most qualified individuals and may be the perfect niche for students with a firm understanding of science and a desire to translate science into action.