After a patent application has been filed, the inventor may be required to sign and submit various forms. What happens if this is several years into the patent process, and the inventor can no longer be reached to sign these forms? And what can you do now to prevent any complications from arising?
One country which requires the inventor to submit signed forms is the USA. Each inventor named on the application must submit a signed declaration and assignment with the US Patent and Trademark Office before payment of the Issue Fee.
What are US Declarations and Assignments?
An inventor declaration confirms the inventor’s belief that they are the original (or joint original) inventor of the claimed invention. If an inventor declaration is not submitted by each inventor before payment of the Issue Fee, the application will be abandoned.
An assignment provides documentary evidence that the rights in the invention have been transferred from the inventor to the applicant, and that the applicant is the rightful owner of any patent granted for the claimed invention. If a signed assignment is not submitted by each inventor before payment of the Issue Fee, the application could grant in the name of the inventor(s) instead of the applicant, although this can usually be rectified post-grant.
What if the inventor cannot or will not sign these forms?
In cases where the US application is filed later in the patent process, such as at the 12 month convention deadline, or even the 30 month national phase deadline, it is possible that the inventor(s) may no longer be available to sign the required forms (for example, they have left the company). What happens then?
A substitute statement can be submitted in lieu of a declaration if an inventor is deceased, is under legal incapacity, has refused to sign the declaration, or cannot be found or reached after a diligent effort. To demonstrate a “diligent effort”, it is usually sufficient to send a copy of the forms to the inventor’s last known address, along with an explanation of what is required and specifying a reasonable time-period for returning the signed forms (for example, 28 days). If the forms are not returned by the end of this period, then it can be assumed that the inventor is no longer reachable.
If an inventor cannot or will not sign the required assignment to transfer their rights in the invention to the applicant, then one possible option where the inventor is an employee of the applicant is to submit their employment agreement in lieu of the assignment. However, for the purposes of the USA, the employment agreement must address the employee’s obligation to assign any Intellectual Property (IP) rights created during their employment to their employer. Ideally the document should contain language which indicates a present and active intent to assign any IP rights (for example, “I hereby assign…”), rather than language which merely indicates an intent to assign any IP rights in the future (for example, “I agree to assign…”).
If the employment agreement does not contain suitable language, one option is to rely on any local IP laws which legally require the employee to assign any IP rights to their employer. For example, in the UK, section 39 of the Patents Act 1977 states that an invention made by an employee will automatically belong to the employer if:
“(a) it was made in the course of the normal duties of the employee or in the course of duties falling outside his normal duties, but specifically assigned to him, and the circumstances in either case were such that an invention might reasonably be expected to result from the carrying out of his duties; or
(b) the invention was made in the course of the duties of the employee and, at the time of making the invention, because of the nature of his duties and the particular responsibilities arising from the nature of his duties he had a special obligation to further the interests of the employer’s undertaking.”
Therefore, if the employee and the employer are based in the UK and the invention falls into category (a) or (b) above, then the invention will automatically belong to the employer under UK law.
As such, in addition to filing a copy of the employment contract, a copy of the relevant local laws and a memorandum explaining why, under local law, the invention belongs to the employer can also be filed to prove full ownership of the application by the applicant.
What can the applicant do to avoid the above complications?
1/ Make use of PCT declarations if filing an International application, particularly:
- (i) the declaration as to the identity of the inventor;
- (ii) the declaration as to the applicant’s entitlement, as at the international filing date, to apply for and be granted a patent; and,
- (iv) the declaration of inventorship (for the purposes of the designation of the USA).
For example, declaration (ii) satisfies the proof of right requirements in the Indian national phase, and (iv) satisfies the declaration requirements in the US national phase. Declarations (i) and (ii) can be signed off by the acting attorney; declaration (iv) however must be signed by each inventor.
2/ Make sure any employment agreements, particularly for research & development staff, clearly address the employee’s obligation to assign any IP rights created, and include language which actively and presently assigns those rights to the employer.
If existing employment agreements do not contain such clauses, a separate agreement can be drawn up for the employee to sign and then appended to their contract.
3/ Include a clause in the employment agreement requiring the employee to sign any necessary forms both during and after their employment. This contractual agreement can be referred to should the employee actively refuse to sign any required forms later in the patent process.
Taking the above actions now can help to avoid any problems later in the patenting process which will likely incur unnecessary costs to rectify. Should you require any assistance or advice, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.