Volunteer attorneys and law students help innovators protect ideas
Innovation in Arizona continues to thrive, but not all entrepreneurs can afford the cost of securing and protecting their intellectual property rights. Two forward-thinking programs in Arizona are helping inventors overcome this hurdle.
Startups and ongoing businesses around the state are tapping into the free legal resources of a clinic at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law that has exhibited tremendous growth over the last several years under the leadership of Allan J. Sternstein. An attorney and professor at the law school, Sternstein teaches Patent Law, Patent Litigation and Intellectual Property Law, and spotted the opportunity to create a win-win for law students, entrepreneurs in need and even law firms representing entrepreneurs.
The clinic pairs qualified inventors and start-up companies with law students who work under the supervision of volunteer attorneys to help the next generation of qualified inventors protect their patents, trademarks, trade secrets and copyrights.
Pre-qualified clients of the law school’s Intellectual Property Clinic receive pro bono legal services including formation of a corporate entity, drafting IP-related agreements such as Non-Disclosure Agreements needed to start a business, conducting patent infringement searches, counseling on the patentability of inventions, counseling on the strength of a trademark and the best trademarks to choose, guidance on how to avoid infringing on the rights of others, and legal counsel on a myriad of issues that inventors and start-up companies face. Students in the Clinic also draft patent and trademark applications for filing with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and can be part of the US Patent and Trademark Office’s (USTPTO) Law School Certificate Program.
“The clinic fills a critical need in helping inventors protect their intellectual property so that their inventions and products can be successfully brought to market,” Sternstein says. “That’s good for everyone.”
Word about the success of the clinic and its reputation for being one of the top in the country has spread to inventors as far away as New Hampshire, Florida, Texas and California. Entrepreneurs from any state can reach out to the clinic for assistance, as long as there are enough law students and experienced supervising attorneys willing to donate their time.
More than 100 inventors have received assistance through the clinic including inventors of every-day household gadgets, the creator of an advanced electronic guidance system, the inventor of a sophisticated vaccine and its use that successfully targets skin cancer tumors, and even an inventor of therapeutic uses for microvesicles generated and isolated from stem cells.
Sternstein says the potential of the clinic is tremendous and only limited by the number of students and volunteer supervising attorneys. “Arizona’s Clinic already has a reputation that has attracted entrepreneurs from around the country. I would love to see the clinic grow even more.”
Sternstein, law students and volunteer intellectual property attorneys and agents also help qualified inventors tap into a second program that is focused specifically on pairing Arizona inventors with volunteer Arizona patent attorneys and patent agents to assist in drafting patent applications.
Tim Fontes, an attorney with Am Law 100 firm Polsinelli who is licensed to practice before the USPTO, has been volunteering for the past year.
“There are a lot of creative, talented entrepreneurs in Arizona and around the country with great ideas,” Fontes says. “Protecting their inventions is key to making sure they have a strong foundation on which to build their businesses, take their products to market, or show a potential investor that they have protected the ideas at the core of their inventions.”
When asked why he volunteers his time, Fontes, who completed his undergraduate degree in computer information systems at ASU and his law degree at the University of Arizona, says that the clinic gives him an opportunity to give back to the community and help inventors who may potentially have developed the next life changing idea.
The Arizona Public Patent Program (APPP), operated by the clinic, serves as the “hub” for qualified inventors in Arizona who want to be paired with a pro bono attorney licensed to practice before the USPTO to assist with the filing or prosecution of a patent.
Law students, under the supervision of a patent attorney, conduct patent searches to determine whether an invention is patentable. If it is, the inventor is then matched with a pro bono attorney who will help them write and file a patent application with the USPTO.
“The APPP program is a great example of how universities, the government and volunteer attorneys in the private sector can work together to support the next generation of innovation in Arizona,” says Sternstein. “It’s a win-win for everyone. Law students have an opportunity to work on real cases and perform patent searches on actual inventions. Volunteer attorneys have access to the assistance of law students. And inventors are able to protect their intellectual property in a cost-effective way.”
Arizona’s program is a model for the rest of the country.
“There is so much innovation and creativity coming out of Arizona’s tech and healthcare sectors,” says Fontes. “But inventors are at risk if they can’t afford to patent their ideas. The APPP program fills that critical need.”
The potential is limitless, Sternstein and Fontes agree, but more volunteer attorneys are needed.