December 17, 2009

Conference session review: “Anatomy of a Patent” (session LAW-8) by Dr. Bruce D. Popp

Review by Stephanie Strobel

Bruce D. Popp was awarded a Ph.D. in astronomy by Harvard University. A former telecom professional, he now translates technical subjects from French to English. He has near-term plans to sit for the US Patent and Trademark Office registration exam to become a Patent Agent.

Dr. Popp shared a slice of his intimate knowledge of US and European patents during his presentation “Anatomy of a Patent” at the 50th ATA Annual Conference held in New York City. At the start of the session Dr. Popp provided a list of resources (see the end of this article).

Prior to the dissection of the selected specimen, Dr. Popp shared some of the types of patents that exist: Utility, Design, and Plant. Among other things, we learned what can be patented: “any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof,” and what cannot be patented: natural phenomena, mathematical algorithms and purely mental concepts.

The subject of the dissection was the patent for an item we could easily grasp: a humble pizza box with an improved closure, US Patent 5,702,054. Dr. Popp discussed the cover page of our specimen, pointing out what to expect and noting what was missing from this particular patent.

We got an up close and personal look at the form and content of the claims section. To be able to file a patent application, it must have at least one claim. Claims can be independent or dependent. An independent claim stands on its own and might describe a widget for example, while a dependent claim refers back to a previous claim and further restricts the subject of the claim, perhaps specifying that the widget is blue. Dr. Popp stated that the US Patent Office charges additional fees for patents with over three independent claims or more than 20 total claims.

Dr. Popp highlighted the differences, US vs. Europe, regarding “multiply dependent” claims. A multiply dependent claim is a dependent claim that refers back to more than one previous claim. European practice makes extensive use of multiply dependent claims, while US Patent Office rules limit the use of multiply dependent claims and charge additional fees when they are used. One interesting and possibly confusing feature of the US patent is that even though it has numerous headings, the most important section, the claims section, ironically has no heading at all.

Though the queries from attendees tempted him, Dr. Popp deftly avoided delving into the physiology of the patent and remained focused on its anatomy.

By the way, Dr. Popp’s personal favorite patent is US Patent 5,406,549 in the telecom sector.

Here are Dr. Popp’s recommendations for those interested in developing patent translation skills:

1. Find a patent in your target language, in a domain you are comfortable with, and become familiar with the format and terminology.

2. Press on. Patents repeat information three times. So if you don’t understand something, continue reading and it may be explained more clearly later in the document.

3. Your translation must be faithful to the original text. Don’t add anything. If you find an error (suppose the source says “up” when it should obviously say “down”), it is best to make a note of this on a separate sheet of translator’s notes. You may also make a note of any other problem. Making corrections is the patent practitioner’s job. The translator’s notes will make that job easier. Your client may of course have a different preference.


Print Resources

Carroll, Alison, ed. The Patent Translator’s Handbook. Alexandria, Virginia: American Translators Association, 2007. (

Pressman, David. Patent it Yourself, 14th edition, Nolo Press.

Internet Resources

Copies of Patents US, EP, PCT, and Patent Abstracts of Japan (English interface) EP, US, many other countries (English/French/German interface) PCT Applications (interfaces in various languages)

Sources for Legislation, Regulation and Treaties (Title 35 of U.S. Code and Title 37 of Code of Federal Regulation, also Manual of Patent Examination Procedure) European Patent Convention (governs European Patent Office) published in three languages, presented in parallel Patent Cooperation Treaty, available in various languages (on the pull-down, choose Code de la propriété intellectuelle)

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