Written by Helen Chiang
Innovation drives the advancement of scientific knowledge. Innovative ideas, although as priceless as they may seem, can be assigned a price and become a property of the innovator. This is called intellectual property, and it has been legally recognized by governments dating back to the 1600’s. Over the past few decades, the extraordinary revolution in science and technology along with the emergence of increasingly sophisticated inventions have made it necessary to refine the rules and regulations governing patents and how they are reinforced.
Currently, patents are granted and regulated by the government. If you wish to apply for a patent in the United States, you would need to file an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), or similarly in Europe with the European Patent Office (EPO). In Canada, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO), which is an agency of Industry Canada, oversees the granting of patents, trademarks, copyrights, etc. Once a patent is granted, it will stop others from making, using, or selling your invention for a maximum of twenty years. When you file a petition to CIPO, your patent application is reviewed by a patent examiner, who will need to determine whether your invention shows novelty, utility, and inventive ingenuity (the three basic criteria for patentability). The patent examiner will need to understand what the invention is and whether such an invention has been described in prior art (publicly available information before a given date that may be relevant to the inventor’s claim of originality). A lot of effort is put into researching the technology being described in the patent application, and this involves searching through existing literature and patent databases. To see a detailed job description of a patent examiner, click here.
To apply for a patent examiner position at CIPO, you first need to ensure that you have the required educational background, which depends on the field of the patent under examination. CIPO has the following streams: biotechnology, electrical, organic, general chemistry and mechanical streams. For the majority of us who did not complete an Engineering bachelors degree, our background would most likely fit into the biotechnology, organic or general chemistry streams. For more details on education requirements, click here. It is not required of you to have studied law, since the knowledge of patent law and the skills required for writing legal reports will come from training programs offered by CIPO and from on-the-job training. During the first three months as a new trainee (SG-PAT-02 or SG-PAT-03), you complete formal courses covering orientation, overview, the basic components of a patent application, and the classification of patents; the Patent Act and Patent Rules, basic patent examination practices, and writing an examiner’s report. Once you have completed these courses and passed the exams, you work under the supervision of a trainer (SG-PAT-05) for the next nine months, on patent applications of a particular subject matter. After this 12-month training period, you are assessed against the SG-PAT-03 qualification standards. If your performance receives positive evaluation, then at the 13- or 14-month period, trainees receive formal course training on complex patent prosecution practices; and court proceedings, licensing and jurisprudence. After passing the corresponding exams, you will continue training under supervision until you meet the standards of the SG-PAT-04 level and are subsequently promoted.
Some positions with the Canadian federal government require you to be bilingual. However, to work as a patent examiner, you only need to be fluent in English. The CIPO website has listed some personality traits desirable for this type of career, including thoroughness, good judgement, self-sufficiency, results-oriented, effective interpersonal relationships, and dependability. The rate of pay and benefits package are fairly enticing, as with most government positions. The starting wage for SG-PAT-02/03 is around $54,000 per annum. With each pay increment, one can earn up to $60,000-70,000 per annum in these two entry levels. There are seven levels in total for the patent examiner position, with the highest level rewarding close to $110,000 annually. The benefits of working for the government include a pension plan (which provides employees with income for a lifetime), life insurance, disability insurance, drug and dental care plans, and leave of absence. There is also the option to adopt a flexible work schedule, such as starting anytime from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. or working extra hours on some days to accumulate time off in a four-week period. One can also work from home, with a maximum of one day per week for the SG-PAT-04 level and a maximum of three days per week after one year at the SG-PAT-04 level.
Several of our experiences during graduate school, such as searching through thousands of journal articles, critically reading the relevant ones, and then trying to digest the massive amount of new information, have trained us to develop excellent critical thinking and analytical skills that are necessary to succeed as a patent examiner. Furthermore, writing abstracts and manuscripts have taught us to effectively and accurately put our findings into writing, which is also an important task involved in patent examination. Being a patent examiner can be a stimulating experience since you get to see inventions before they even happen. Aside from feeling like you are at the forefront of science and technology, being a patent examiner also means that you have the power to judge whether something is truly innovative. Or if you are someone with a passion in both law and science, this could also turn out to be a perfect career path for you.
If you would like to find out more, here are a few articles and interviews on the patent examiner career:
- Video: A day in the life of a patent examiner
- The detailed life of a patent examiner
- Canadian Intellectual Property Office: patent examiner recruitment
- Patent examiner job profile (Germany)
- Patent examiner job profile (Australia)
- Patent examiner job profile (U.S.)