Monday, October 21, 2013

Working with [the next] Inventors
Teaching Patent Basics

Today I want to talk about patent basics.

I’m luckier than a lot of women. I work in a field where women are accepted; I teach technical writing. But, I also work in a field that is predominantly male: in intellectual property, with inventors, and with start-ups.

This little guy is a sketch from a Microsoft
patent. This might be my favorite patent
What makes me lucky is that unlike one of my colleagues in chemistry, I do not have to go downstairs to use the toilet. Just let that sink in for a minute. In the U.S., some women are fighting for toilets in the vicinity of their laboratories and offices. I expect this to end as STEM education takes hold.

But right now, my life looks practically cushy in comparison. And I like that I work in communication (which is the key to the STEM disciplines).

I decided I wanted to study intellectual property issues after working in the legal profession. The last firm I worked for represented a medical researcher who lost his IP and millions of dollars. This guy had done so much for women’s health that I could see exactly why the firm took on his case. But he also had terrible recordkeeping practices. I wanted to help this guy and every other inventor who loses their IP because they aren’t communicating well or paying attention to the details of how they keep their notes or files.

Along the way, however, I learned something.

Inventors might not be so good at keeping records because they’re never really taught anything about intellectual property until it’s too late to develop good habits. 
The first time I worked with undergraduate engineers, I brought in some patents and I—the writing teacher—was the first one to show them what a patent looks like. Now I have a talk I give called The Anatomy of a Patent. You surely can’t protect what you own without knowing what a patent is.

The University of Maine, where I work, is working to remedy this with workshops such as this one: A Panel Discussion on Intellectual Property Topics for Science & Engineering Students. I want to be part of educational endeavors like these.

Technical writers need to learn about patents, too. 
Technical communicators need to learn as well, especially those who work in R&D or technology transfer, a niche career path for technical communicators. This past summer, a class of nine technical writing students and I practiced turning patents into plain English. These students had very little science in their backgrounds but relied on their moxy and the Google search engine, but learned to take language that felt foreign and rewrite it.

This job is important because inventors tend to be super-specialists in their fields, and they sometimes find it difficult to rehash their ideas using plain English. I understand why, too. Can you imagine creating something with intricacies that took years to perfect and then having a tech writing team boil their ideas down to a three-word concept that a sixth grader can understand? The beauty of why an invention works is lost in translation, but consumers just want to know: Will it make toast? Or whatever.

I also learned from Dave, one of my favorite patent examiners at the U.S. Patent Office, to talk to students about becoming patent examiners. Apparently few people tells them about this lucrative career path.

I want students to understand the role of intellectual property—specifically patents—in our global economy and why understand these issues is important to how ideas are communicated.

What else should I be teaching students about patents?

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