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Patent Documents: What’s in a Specification?

Patents and patent applications are complex legal documents defining the protection obtained or sought for an invention.  Whilst these documents are often lengthy and involved, they almost always have a similar structure, including common sections.  Furthermore, each section is included for a specific purpose.  Understanding this common structure and the intentions behind it is a critical step in reviewing the protection provided by any patent right.

The first section of any patent application is the title.  The choice of title may seem trivial.  However, in some jurisdictions such as the UK, the tile of an application is published soon after filing.  As such, the title of a patent application is often very generic so as to provide no hint to others of the specific details of the application before the entire application is published.

Commonly, the next section of any patent document is a short paragraph titled the ‘Field of the Invention’ or similar.  Here, the patent document will contain a summary setting out the general area of the invention, allowing the patent Examiner and others to understand the technical area within which the application lies.

The next section of most patent documents contains a description of the background to the invention.  Here, the scene for the invention is set with a discussion of existing technology and the problems associated with present solutions.  Sometimes, this section contains references to previously published patent documents or scientific literature.  This section aims to put the invention into context, helping the reader determine why the invention represents a technological step forward.  However, the background section should not reveal, or hint towards, the details of the invention.

Instead, the invention’s details are revealed in a section entitled ‘Summary of the Invention’ or similar.  This section usually comes directly after the background discussion and sets out the features of the invention in clear terms.  Additionally, this section should set out the advantages provided by each of the specified elements in detail, as such detail can be helpful during patent examination and/or contentious proceedings.  In European patent documents, this section should closely align with the claims to ensure the application is clear to the reader.  For example, a feature defined as essential to the invention in the claims should be described similarly here.

Often the most extended portion of any application is the detailed description.  Here, at least one working version of the invention is discussed in sufficient detail to allow the ‘skilled reader’ of the document to make the invention themselves.  It is also vital that this section of the application supports the entire subject matter claimed in the application.  In this section of the application, the invention’s well-known features can be discussed in less detail, whereas any new developments and features must be discussed in depth.  This section may reference figures included in the application to assist the reader in understanding the invention.  Additionally, it is common in some technical fields for this section of the application to incorporate experimental data to illustrate the benefits of the new invention – for example, to evidence that a new composition offers improvements over what is already known.

Next comes the most critical section of any patent document: the claims.  The claims of a granted patent define the scope of the legal protection obtained by the patent owner.  Of the claims, the most important are the ‘independent’ claims, those claims that stand alone without reference to any other.  The independent claims define the very broadest protection provided by the patent.  In any patent, claim 1 is always an independent claim, but other independent claims may also be included to protect the invention in an alternative manner or to protect different aspects of the invention.  As such, it is essential to consider every claim in a patent document when reviewing infringement and validity issues.

The final section of any patent document is the abstract.  Whilst it is the last section of the document, it is of limited significance as it has no impact on the scope of the patent document.  Instead, the abstract provides technical information to ensure the document can be efficiently searched after publication.

While patent documents can be difficult to interpret initially, they are well structured with defined sections.  Understanding the importance of each of the sections and the role they play within the application as a whole is the first step in reading and interpreting patents to help you progress your business.

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