Nina Elder, MJLST Staffer
Last month, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) put out a request for comments on a proposal to amend the admission requirements for the registration examination it administers. Passing this examination, colloquially referred to as the patent bar, is required before an aspiring practitioner can practice patent matters before the USPTO. To qualify for the test, applicants must demonstrate that they have the appropriate scientific and technical training. There are three ways to qualify, but most applicants are automatically admitted under “Category A” which simply requires a degree in an approved topic. The USPTO has historically adhered strictly to its list of approved degrees; for example, “biology” is included on the list, but in the past a degree in “biological sciences” did not qualify.
In 2021, the USPTO made its first major change to the admission requirements in years by expanding the degrees accepted under Category A to include advanced degrees and 14 new undergraduate majors. Though it did not officially announce it, the USPTO also edited its Frequently Asked Questions to reflect that it no longer requires that an applicant’s degree match a Category A degree title exactly, but instead evaluates any degree that is similar to an approved degree to determine if they are equivalent. However, even after these improvements there was still a clear lack of approved computer science-related degrees, and many attorneys felt the USPTO needed to do more. The USPTO’s new proposal at least partially addresses this issue and suggests several more changes, a key one being removing the certification requirement for computer science degrees.
Currently, computer science degrees only qualify under Category A if they are certified by either the Computing Accreditation Commission or the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. This is the only degree accepted under Category A that requires extra certification. Qualifying under either of the alternative routes—Category B or C—may be nearly impossible for many students with computer science degrees. Category B requires an applicant establish they have the necessary training by showing they have a certain number of credits in particular scientific topics. However, the coursework needed for a computer science degree typically does not align with the subjects required for Category B such as physics, chemistry, and biology. Under Category C an applicant can prove they have practical training by taking the Fundamentals of Engineering test, but once again the information covered for a degree in computer science may not prepare a student for such a test.
As of November 2022, there are only 368 schools in the US with a qualifying certified computer science program. Many highly respected schools, including Stanford, UC Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon, do not have the required certification for their computer science programs. Considering there appear to be more than 700 four-year schools that offer computer science degrees, there are likely hundreds of computer science students graduating every year that do not qualify to take the patent bar under Category A and may have difficulty qualifying under Category B or C. Even if a school becomes accredited, any student that received a degree before that accreditation does not qualify.
The certification requirement may be excluding the “best and brightest” computer practitioners, and is contributing to the lack of practitioners with relevant experience in a heavily patented area. There is a huge disconnect between the number of patents related to software and the number of practitioners with a relevant background. As of 2010, less than 5% of patent practitioners trained in a computer science-related field. While decisions such as Alice Corp v CLS Bank International have limited what software can be patented, a growing number of patents at least include some element relating to computers and more than 60% of utility patents issued in 2019 related to software. There is clearly an increasing need for competent patent attorneys with experience in software and, if adopted, the USPTO’s current proposal would increase that pool.
It has also been suggested that altering patent bar requirements may improve diversity in patent law. Despite women making up more than 37% of attorneys in the US, only 17% of patent attorneys are women. Less than 15% of patent practitioners with a background in computer science are women. The picture is even more striking when we examine racial diversity—less than 7% of all patent attorneys and agents are minorities. Shockingly, there are more male patent practitioners named Michael than women of color. The USPTO’s broadening of the accepted degrees last year was spurred by a journal article written by a law student, Mary Hannon, suggesting that changes to patent bar admission may help address the low number of women in patent law. While she acknowledged that removing the computer science certification requirement would not close the gender gap since the majority of computer science graduates are men, she pointed out that by allowing more individuals with computer science degrees to take the patent bar the overall number of women admitted to the exam may increase.
Many have been pushing for changes to the patent bar admission requirements for years, and while it is promising to see progress being made, there is still more that can be done. Organizations such as the American Intellectual Property Law Association have suggested Category A be broadened even further to include degrees such as data science and mathematics. The USPTO has not only shown willingness to continue updating these requirements, as evidenced by the fact it is proposing to regularly consider and add new Category A degrees, but also that it is responsive to comments. For example, environmental engineering was added to the list of accepted degrees at least partially in response to a comment. Kathi Vidal, USPTO’s current director, explained the goal is to ensure the USPTO remains dynamic by recognizing the new types of degrees being awarded as society and technology evolve. In its recent request for comments, the USPTO asked commenters to weigh in on its new proposals and to submit general suggestions on updating the scientific and technical requirements for admission to the patent bar. Comments close on January 17th, 2023—if you have thoughts about the degrees the USPTO should accept under Category A, go comment!