what can you make of a patent?

It sounds like a line from Airplane. Sadly, it is not. It is a valid question that is somehow absent from the conversation.

Traditionally, the world is pretty much in one of two camps.  In one camp are those that make sweeping overly-broad statements about patents.  It is all too common for the general media, technology media and blogs to reduce a patent to a sound bite.  This produces unrealistic, laughable statements of patent breadth and misinterpretations of the patented technology.  I have written about the “sound biting” of patents before.

In the other camp is the legal reading of a patent.  It is a very specific interpretation focusing on the Claims.  Here, each word in a Claim is construed to give it and the entire Claim a very specific meaning.  There is a very large space between these two camps; a space that seems to be rarely visited.

A patent tells a story that begins with a problem or “need” in the art and ends with a solution that “obviates or mitigates” this need.  The problem or need is generally outlined in the Background, though modern writing is often quite brief.  The inventive technology that addresses this need is presented in the Description.  To be clear, the Description does not only present the inventive technology.  It presents the inventive technology with enough padding a.k.a. supporting information such that one “skilled in the art” can practice or reproduce the invention.  Finally, the Claims detail the inventive aspects for which the inventor wants legal protection in single sentences.

The trick is being able to spot and extract the inventive material from all of the other detail.  This is where those that do not have experience with the nitty-gritty of patents make mistakes, and make overly broad statements about the scope of the patent.  But, once you have this experience you can read a patent, appreciate the technology the company wants to protect and integrate it into a holistic view of the company and its technology.