Patent and Trademark Office

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Patent and Trademark Office

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) is a federal agency that grants Patents and registers Trademarks to qualified applicants. A division of the Commerce Department, the PTO was named the Patent Office when it was established by Congress in 1836. In 1975 it was renamed the Patent and Trademark Office to reflect its dual function. The PTO is now organized pursuant to 35 U.S.C.A. § 1 et seq.

Under the direction of the secretary of commerce, the PTO is run by the commissioner of patents and trademarks, a deputy commissioner, several assistant commissioners, and a support staff of more than 1,000 employees. The primary job of the commissioners is to review the merits of patent and trademark applications. Patents are typically issued upon a showing that a particular applicant has discovered or developed a new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, chemical composition, or other invention. Trademark protection is typically afforded to applicants who are seeking to identify their commercial goods by means of a distinctive word, name, symbol, or other device.

Trademark applications must be submitted with a drawing of the proposed mark; patent applications must be accompanied by a detailed description of the invention. A filing fee is also required for both patent and trademark applications. Applications are reviewed at the PTO by persons of competent legal knowledge and scientific ability, though such persons need not be scientists or lawyers to qualify for the job. Because the application process often requires a significant amount of technical expertise and legal acumen, many applicants hire Intellectual Property attorneys to represent them. The commissioner of patents and trademarks maintains a roster of attorneys and other agents who are eligible to represent applicants in proceedings before the PTO. Each year the PTO receives hundreds of thousands of patent and trademark applications. However, only a fraction of the applications are approved. During the fiscal year of 2000 the PTO issued 176,087 patents and registered approximately 106,383 trademarks.

When the application process is completed, the PTO attaches its seal of authenticity to all patents and trademarks that have been approved. Additionally, the PTO publishes the Official Gazette, a weekly notice of all successful patent and trademark applications. Old editions of the Gazette dating back to 1872 are kept at a library in the PTO. The library contains more than 30 million documents, including ownership records for both U.S. and foreign patents and trademarks. The library is open to the public, and the PTO will furnish certified copies of patents, trademarks, and other library records to any interested person.

Patent applicants who are dissatisfied with a decision made by the PTO may appeal to the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences. The board consists of the commissioner of patents and trademarks, the deputy commissioner, an assistant commissioner for patents, an assistant commissioner for trademarks, and individuals known as examiners-in-chief. Trademark applicants can appeal adverse decisions to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, which has a similar composition. Applicants who lose before either the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences or the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board may appeal directly to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which is vested with jurisdiction over most intellectual property matters.

In addition to examining the merits of patent and trademark applications, the PTO performs studies regarding the development of intellectual Property Law at the domestic and international levels. These studies have allowed the PTO to establish a number of programs to recognize, identify, assess, and forecast technological trends and their utility to industry. The PTO has relied on these programs in its efforts to strengthen patent and trademark protection around the world.

The PTO, located in Arlington, Virginia, employs over 5,000 staff members to support its major functions of examining and issuing patents and examining and registering trademarks. Since 1991, the PTO has operated similarly to a private business, providing products and services in return for fees that pay for PTO operations, although increased filings for patents and trademarks have caused fiscal strain. The PTO has responded by a variety of methods including electronic filing. The PTO features a user-friendly Web site that permits users to apply for a patent or file a trademark online as well as checking the status of patents and trademarks as they move through the application or filing process.

Further readings

Patent and Trademark Office. Available online at <> (accessed August 1, 2003).

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).


Commerce Department; Intellectual Property; Jurisdiction.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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