What are Patent Claims?

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Claims are statements included in a patent application that describe (or “recite”) the structure of an invention in precise and exact terms, using a long-established formal style and precise terminology. Claims serve as a way:

  • for the U.S. Patent and Trademark office (USPTO) to determine whether an invention is patentable, and
  • for a court to determine whether a patent has been infringed (someone has made, used, or sold a patented device without the patent owner’s permission).

Most patent applications contain more than one claim, each of which describes the invention from a slightly different viewpoint. Claims may be “independent” (standing on their own) or “dependent” (referring to other claims on which they depend for some or all of their elements). Examples of independent and dependent claims are below.

Each claim must “particularly point out and distinctly claim” the invention for which the patent is being sought. To this end, the USPTO requires that each claim be:

  • stated in one unit (a sentence fragment which can and almost always does have numerous clauses and subclauses)
  • very specific
  • clear
  • distinct from other claims, and
  • consistent with the narrative description of the patent contained in the patent application.

Claims may be broad or narrow in terms of the scope of the invention they address. The greater the scope of the invention defined in the claims (that is, the broader the claims), the wider the reach of the patent. Similarly, the narrower the scope of a patent claim, the more restricted the reach of the patent—and the easier it is for another inventor to come up with a somewhat similar invention that does not infringe the claim.

Example of Independent and Dependent Claims

 

I claim:

Independent Claim

1.  A target comprising substrate means and target pattern means formed on one side of said substrate means in a layer substantially covering said one side of said substrate means, said substrate means and said target pattern means being mutually contrasting visually, said substrate means and said target pattern means being arranged such that when struck by a high-speed projectile, a substantially larger-than-projectile-size portion of said target pattern means at the projectile’s point of impact will be physically separated and remove from the rest of said target pattern means, and a hole, of a size smaller than said removed portion of said target pattern means, will be made in said substrate means, whereby a portion of said substrate means around said hole will be exposed by the impact of said projectile.

Dependent
Claims

2.  The target of claim 1 wherein said substrate means is contrastingly colored to said target pattern means by means of a fluorescent dye.

3.  The target of claim 1 wherein said substrate means comprises a transparent film backed by a layer of material having a contrasting color to said target pattern means.

4.  The target of claim 1 wherein said substrate means comprises an ionomer resin and said target pattern means comprises an ink layer.

5.  The target of claim 4 wherein said ionomer resin is transparent and is backed by layer of material having a contrasting color to said target pattern means.

6.  The target of claim 4 wherein said ionomer resin has a contrasting color to said target pattern means.

7.  The target of claim 1 wherein said substrate means has a target pattern congruent with the target pattern on said target pattern means.

8.  The target of claim 7 wherein said substrate means comprises a transparent film backed by a layer of material having contrasting color to said target pattern means, said congruent target pattern being formed on said layer of material.

9.  The target of claim 8 wherein said layer of material is paper which is dyed with a brightly colored fluorescent ink.

10.  The target of claim 1 wherein said target pattern means comprises at least one substantially larger-than-bullet-size flat member adhesively secured to said substrate means.

11.  The target of claim 1 wherein said target pattern means comprises a mosaic of substantially larger-than-bullet-size flat members adhesively secured to and covering said substrate means and carries a target pattern thereon.

Example 1: A claim to a new type of writing implement states that the invention is “a hand-held device containing means by which marks may be made on a surface.” Because the language of this claim literally reaches every writing implement that ever has been or ever could be manufactured, it would be considered extremely broad. If a patent were issued (extremely unlikely, as discussed below), any subsequent invention that was held by hand and made marks on a surface would infringe the claim and therefore the patent.

Example 2: Suppose the inventor of a type of writing implement claims the invention as follows: “A 3-inch by ½-inch plastic tube containing liquid and for making an indelible 1/32-inch line on a flat paper surface.” If another company makes a 4-inch by ¼-inch metal tube containing a charcoal substance capable of making variable width lines on any flat surface, the claim is not infringed, because it recited very specific elements that are different from the elements of the later invention.

Although broad claims promise to give the inventor more protection, there is a rub: They may preclude the issuance of a patent. To qualify for a patent, an invention must be both novel (different in some way from previous inventions) and nonobvious (produce an unexpected or surprising result). The broader the claims, the more likely that they overlap with previous developments, and the greater the risk that the invention described in the claims won’t be considered novel and nonobvious. (The writing implement discussed above is a good example.) Conversely, narrower claims for an invention provide a greater chance that the invention will be considered novel and nonobvious, because the claims are less likely to overlap with previous developments.

Example: The first writing implement claim, described earlier, was so broad that it clearly read on (described) prior inventions (such as pencil, chalk, pen, quill, crayon). This fact should preclude the issuance of a patent and would make invalid any patent that did issue on the invention described in that claim. The narrower version of the second writing implement claim, however, tended to exclude many prior inventions. For instance, by limiting the claim to a liquid means, the claim excluded pencils and chalk. The narrower claim would therefore have a better chance of being considered novel and nonobvious.

Because claims must be narrow enough to distinguish the invention from previous developments, but broad enough to provide meaningful protection, the primary goal of all patent claim drafters is to draft claims as broadly as possible, given the constraints of the state of prior knowledge or art (inventions and developments).

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